Prayer to the God Who Is True

“I will recount the steadfast love of the LORD, the praises of the LORD, according to all that the LORD has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel that he has granted them according to his compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (Isaiah 64:7).

As Thanksgiving Day drew to a close, I meditated on the goodness of God.  I have experienced severe losses; I have known failure and have felt the shock of betrayal.  In my grief and my horror, I questioned and challenged God. His message in the Bible rebukes me. A message of purposed renewal and determined love dominates that book. God reminds me in the person of Jesus that although the way may not be easy, I still can choose to walk it with faithfulness and integrity.

I hope you chose today to thank God and to thank others who have brought grace and love into your life.  Expressing thankfulness ingrains within us awareness of how much we have, even when it seems we have lost all.

Thank you for reading. Give thanks to the God who remains true.

God who remains true, I marvel at your capacity to transform heartache into insight.  When our dreams shatter like glass, when rocks of reality collide with them, you reveal a path to reassemble and to build anew a vision for going forward. Often we think that we move toward our own goals, but the destination is the one you have prepared.  You do not force. Sometimes people manipulate and force others to act in ways harmful to themselves. You have shown the way, the truth, and the life. You grant us the freedom to choose that way. You grant us the choice to deny your way, and to forge our own. Our denial will damage us, but you remain faithful – you inhabit integrity – and  are ready to rescue when we realize our plight.  You remain true when we choose what is false; you inhabit beauty when we choose ugliness.  Thank you for your love and your faithfulness. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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Thanking God for His Wonderful Deeds

The Thanksgiving holiday season has arrived in the United States, preceded ironically by shootings in churches as well as a concert venue and numerous accusations of sexual harassment or assault against well-known entertainers or politicians. The possibility of nuclear war has emerged again. This confluence of evil with a day of Thanksgiving to God has caused questioning of both the goodness of God and the viability of prayer.

Psalm 9 recognizes the disruption caused by evil. The psalmist acknowledges that sin has consequences, and that the needy may seem forgotten.  The concluding verses of the psalm/prayer plead for justice,

 “Arise, O LORD! Let not man prevail; let the nations be judged before you! Put them in fear, O LORD! Let the nations know that they are but men! (verses 19-20).”

Violation of God’s will occurs at both personal and national levels.  People and nations get into trouble when individuals act as they are gods. Mass shootings happen when someone decides he or she has the authority to decide when other people live or die.  This prayer in Psalm 9 reminds us that all humanity is accountable to higher authority.

This prayer is not primarily about bemoaning injustice or cruelty.  The psalmist gives thanks to God because of his “wonderful deeds” (verse 1). He sings praises to a God who remembers the afflicted and avenges on their behalf. God “does not forget the cry of the afflicted” (verses 11-12). He thanks God who maintains justice by judging uprightly, who rebukes and punishes the wicked, and who reveals himself (verses 5, 8, and 16). He appreciates that God does not forsake those who seek him (verse 10). When he prays for rescue, he prays for the opportunity to continue to “recount all your praises” and “rejoice in your salvation.”

Like the writer of Psalm 9, let’s look for what God has done for good in our lives. Let’s remember reconciliation of damaged relationships, incredible rescues, and victories over disease and addiction. Let’s praise God for people who turned their lives around. Let’s thank him for the blessings he poured into our lives through the love, action, and example of people who died this year. Let us pray with the Psalmist,

“Be gracious to me, O LORD! See my affliction from those who hate me, O you who lift me up from the gates of death, that I may recount all your praises, that in the gates of the daughter of Zion I may rejoice in your salvation” (verses 13-14).

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A Prayer When God Seems to Hide

Frustration mounts in prayer when it seems that God does not hear, or prayer. If one prays concerning persecution of Christians in a nation, or prays for relief from economic or other social injustice, he or she may want to surrender if persecution and injustice continue to flourish. Psalm 10 contains a prayer of lament and frustration to God concerning bullies who harm the helpless and torment those who are vulnerable to attack. The prayer begins with an accusation that God has excused himself from the discussion:

“Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”

The prayer continues by describing the arrogance of the person who pursues the poor, ambushing the helpless and murdering the innocent.  But, the prayer also offers insight into the thought process of the persecutor: He acts as he does because he believes there is no God. That is why he does not seek God. That is why he abuses the weak in society with impunity. He does not believe that God will hold him accountable for his actions, because, quite simply, he does not believe in God. Even when he may consider that God exists, he brushes the possibility of accountability aside,

“He says in his hear, ‘God has forgotten, he has hidden his face, he will never see it” (verse 11).

The abuser answers the afflicted person’s question from verse one with an emphatic “Yes! God has hidden himself!”  The wicked man, if he prays, says to God, “You will not call to account” (verse 13).

The situation appears grim for the afflicted victim.  But the prayer of Psalm 10 voices confidence in God despite his apparent absence.  He prays,

“Arise, O LORD, O God, lift up your hand; forget not the afflicted… you do see, for you note mischief and vexation, that you may take it into your hands, to you the helpless commits himself you have been the helper of the helpless” (verses 12, 14-15).

He prays that God will avenge the afflicted, the innocent, and the helpless. The prayer concludes with recognition of God’s glory and power as ruler of Creation. The prayer acknowledges the justice of God and God’s desire to end terror that oppresses “the fatherless and the oppressed.”

Acts of terror in our own time stem from a sense of frustration that God has overlooked injustice and that one must take vengeance into his or her own hands, or from a calloused belief that God will not protect inferior beings that the terrorist attacks. Both approaches equal practical atheism, making radical decisions as if God either does not exist, or will not avenge the victims of the act of terror. As we pray, recoiling in horror as murderers drive vehicles into crowds or shoot worshipers at churches, we must remember the concluding words of Psalm 10:

“O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more” (verses 17-18).

All biblical quotations are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.

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A Prayer for Recovery from Assault

The tentacles of sadness entwine

And enwrap me, suffocating mind,

Dispelling thought; driving off will to dine,

Their dark ink clouds, creative urges blind,

O God, in my horror I want to scream

But restrain my shout – will any care

That I drown in depths of a tragic dream

Where study, prayer, and love seem to scare

Those I crave to aid, and amuse those who don’t?

“Fake news!” they respond to my research;

They jeer at the pain of those who groan,

Scarred by insult and stricken by assault.

They laugh, not realizing when I moan

That my scars also hurt; they do not halt.

Heed my missive, and come near to heal

The lacerations from verbal assaults

And memories – blows that made me kneel

In pain and stare at my hand in wonder

At blood just wiped from a stricken face.

Heal me, Lord; regenerate within

An urge to forgive those who attacked

And a passion to protect others at risk.

Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me. Hide not your face from your servant; for I am in distress; make haste to answer me” (Psalm 69:16-17 ESV).

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Prayer to God who Avenges the Victim

Our God loves justice; injustice causes him to don his armor and “go to war.” The psalmist prays, “Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob” (Psalm 99:4).  Many in the United States have focused on issues related to sexual harassment and assault or physical abuse in recent days, especially in regard to the experience of women. Although men may experience each of those indignities, they are a more pervasive fear for women.  As women post “me too,” they and some men have told their stories of pain and humiliation. Often, the person who violated their dignity was a person with authority or an admired mentor, friend, or relative.

Although I suffered during some parts of my life, in retrospect I see most of those times as when God was disciplining me as a loving Father corrects his child (see Hebrews 12 for additional biblical thoughts on this subject). God holds us accountable.  There is a frightening passage in the New Testament where the text says that “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts…” (Romans 1:24). He allowed them to experience the consequences of their desires and their actions. God executes justice also among his followers.  He rewards but he also disciplines.  The psalmist prays, “O Lord our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings”(Psalm 99:8). God does not write us a blank check; he expects accountability for our actions. As the final verse of Psalm 99 implies, God’s holiness forms a critical part of why we worship him and how we seek to be like him in character: “Extol the Lord our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the Lord our God is holy” (Psalm 99:9).

The central verses of the psalm introduce that conclusion and tell us who God forgave while he avenged their sin. While David may not have written Psalm 99, its words mirror his spirit and his relationship with God. Even when God forgave David for his sins of murder and adultery (committed with the wife of a loyal follower), David continued to bear the spiritual scars of those sins and suffer their consequences for the rest of his life. David, however, did not give up. He continued to serve God courageously until the end of his life. God’s forgiveness and his discipline intertwine in our lives.  Psalm 99 also teaches some powerful truths about holiness and the sovereignty of God in connection with prayer by heroes of faith who also failed at critical moments. The psalm has universal perspective: People from every nation (and even the earth itself!) should tremble at the realization that God rules.  While, especially in Western society, people cherish autonomy, Psalm 99 reminds us that even rulers, priests, and prophets are accountable to God. The psalm mentions Moses, Aaron, and Samuel. Each of these three had a connection with priesthood; Moses and Samuel also functioned as rulers and prophets in Israel. The role of prayer in the ministry of all three is noted when the psalm’s writer observes about Samuel, “…Samuel also was among those who called on his name,” in a literary structure that equates the service of Aaron and Moses with that of Samuel.  While all three were spiritual leaders of the people of God, Moses and Aaron especially were held accountable for sins committed in the course of leading Israels . Even Samuel had to answer for the unethical behavior of his sons after he delegated some of his responsibilities and authority to them. Still, this trio of disciplined faith heroes “kept his decrees, and the statutes that he gave them.”

Psalm 99 emphasizes the holiness of God in its call to worship him: “Extol the LORD our God; worship at his footstool. Holy is he!”(verse 5) and “Extol the LORD our God, and worship at his holy mountain, for the LORD our God is holy” (verse 9). We know the LORD is holy because he is a “lover of justice” and has “executed justice and righteousness”(verse 4). In regard to the prayers of Aaron, Moses, and Samuel, verse 8 observes, “O LORD our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings.”

God’s holiness is to be reflected in the lives of his worshipers; passages like James 3 underline that teachers and leaders of worship especially should live holy lives.  The lives of the three leaders named above reveal that even flawed leaders can lead God’s people well, but that there is a personal cost for their sins. Psalm 99 applies this truth to leaders, but also to all in our world who call on God’s name in prayer. Prayer is not a glib conversation with a friend, but a dialogue with the holy Creator of life and our world. As Hebrews 12:28 states, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.” When we “call for fire” in prayer, we must pray with awareness of the power of the One to whom we cry. Victims of abuse and harassment may hesitate to pray, their faith crippled by violation of trust. Leaders who regret past sins may look into a literal mirror with remorse while they ask God and themselves, “How can I be forgiven?”  Psalm 99 declares forgiveness for the offender but also justice for the victim.  It calls each one of us to a higher ethical standard, to be holy, and calls us to worship the one who loves justice and who has established equity. It calls to be a people who have matured and who can worship in community with others who have faltered in faithfulness, but who seek to regain dignity and wholeness. It calls to pray to the God who avenges the victim as he disciplines and rehabilitates the unfaithful leader.

God of justice, we tremble as we contemplate our failings in our relationships with other people and with you. When we speak in anger or act in lust, we infringe upon the dignity of someone made in your image.  David, Moses, Aaron, and Samuel remind us that we may manage to serve well despite flaws in characters or failures as leaders. They looked to you. We pray that we will direct our gaze and our thoughts to you when sin threatens our space.  Clear our minds of deceit and desire to manipulate. Turn our hearts to you and away from our idols of lust and power. Help us to overcome fear. Raise up leaders we can trust and admire. Restore hope to our society and rekindle the dreams of victims. In Jesus’s name, amen.

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In Him

This past Sunday evening, I challenged the assembly to listen for the words “in him” or “with him” as I read Colossians 2:6-15.  Those phrases reverberate through the passage, confirming the Christian’s dependence on Christ, in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” and yet was raised from the dead by God.  Christ, in other words was both deity and human.  We all learned about Christ from teachers or directly from reading the Bible.  Many of the first readers (or hearers) Colossians had heard the message from a man named Epaphras, who apparently was with Paul when he wrote the letter (Colossians 1:7).  Having met Epaphras, Paul could write confidently, “as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught , abounding in thanks giving” (Colossians 2:6-7). All authority rests in him in whom Christians have been filled.  In Deuteronomy 10, Moses envisions a time when God’s people will “circumcise the foreskins of [their] hearts.” Jeremiah does also in Jeremiah 4:4. In Colossians 2, Paul writes that Christians

“were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:11-12).

In him and with him, we gain salvation through the powerful working of God the Father.   Because the Colossians who received this letter were in Christ, Paul could thank God for their faith and the fruit that was increasing for God through their obedience. These verses remind us that we have hope through God in Christ, and that when we submit to God by confessing our faith in baptism, it is God’s power that saves us and not our merit.  I encourage you, too, to read these verses from Colossians aloud, emphasizing the words “in him” and “with him.” Consider the blessings that we may have in Christ and thank God for his love.

In Christ, O God of covenant, you fulfilled your plan for redeeming humanity. In Christ we gain a sense of your dream for us. With Christ, we arise to new life after being buried in baptism’s watery grave. In Christ, we gain hope. We walk on the trail he has blazed; we march in triumphal procession with him because you, our God, triumphed in him. His suffering teaches us that the path to salvation does not lead through prosperity, but through obedience. In him, we learn to trust and to pray with confidence in his name. Thank you, Father, in Jesus’s name, amen.

 

(Biblical quotations are from English Standard Version)

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Cataracts

Waters cascading, white waves dancing over rocks

Testify, God, that we can’t confine to a box

The defining Force that propels the cataracts,

The constricting Fear that humbles before the facts.

We observe your power revealed in nature

And build statues and symbols, worship the creature

We have constructed in meager imitation

Of majesty that evoked awestruck elation.

Marble monuments record failure or victory;

We bow heads before both in solemn reverie

And scream in violent horror when ghouls deface

Our idols, our heroes, history they erase.

Ritual movements and solemn chants mark our prayers

To banners symbolic of our great nation’s affairs.

We gnash our teeth against silent protests

That abuse our symbols and defame our crests.

Waterfalls descend noisily through wooded glens;

We capture their grandeur, snapping on our smartphones

Visions of glory sullied by Creation’s groans

Under weight of trash and chemical refuse

We have anointed on it, as again we lose

Perspective of your power, memory of your love

That creates peace and your grace that renews above.

Spiritual cataracts, oddly named, so blur our sight

That we worship the symbol and ignore your light.

Wash from our eyes the blindness that obscures glory;

Free us from our box; open our ears to your story.

cataracts“What profit is an idol
when its maker has shaped it,
a metal image, a teacher of lies?
For its maker trusts in his own creation
when he makes speechless idols!
Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake;
to a silent stone, Arise!
Can this teach?
Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver,
and there is no breath at all in it.
20 But the Lord is in his holy temple;
let all the earth keep silence before him.” (Habakkuk 2:18-20 ESV).

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