If the Lord Had Not Been on Our Side

Psalm 124 expresses thanksgiving and praise for the Lord who is on our side. The exuberant wording of the poem envisions the catastrophic alternative that would have occurred had God not intervened. The psalm begins with recognition of God’s protection, then calls for Israel to respond. As pilgrims traveled to the temple, they would have responded to this call as they sang or chanted this psalm of ascent. The psalm has inspired several lyrical arrangements. My favorite is Leonard Smith, Jr.’s 1985 song “Had It Not Been the Lord Who Was on Our Side.” The worshipers in Psalm 124 respond to the call:

“If it had not been the Lord who was on our side when people rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us up alive, when their anger was kindled against us; then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us; then over us would have gone the raging waters” (Psalm 124:2-5).

Those words echo a victory recorded in 2 Samuel 5 that saved King David’s fledgling united kingdom of Judah and Israel. The Philistines, threatened by emergence of a stronger power to their north and east, attacked. After David’s army defeated them, he said, “The Lord has burst through my enemies before me like a bursting flood” (2 Samuel 5:20).
A sense of entrapment fills us with dread. When we feel as if we are trapped, we wonder if we can escape. Is there hope? Whether it is a military scenario as in David’s case, an abusive relationship, or a tense situation in the workplace, our pulse quickens and we worry about what may happen next. This psalm of David is quite clear. If the Lord had not been on their side, they would have been overwhelmed. That too may be our sense when we face challenges. When we need more information to understand what is going on around me, when we wonder if an ambush against may occur, we crave assurance that the Lord indeed is on our side, that he will provide a way of escape from the snare that we sense. On those occasions we pray that the Lord will break through like a torrent into our lives to remove obstacles to our survival or success, that he will give us victory over the evil we confront. We give thanks for the help he has provided so far, and sing with the pilgrims of Psalm 124:

“Blessed be the LORD, who has not given us as prey to their teeth! We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped! Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124:6-8).

  • Quotations are from the English Standard Version

 

O Lord, We sense danger. We want to run away, but fear we will run into the trap the enemy has laid. We want to trust, but wonder if it is safe to do so. We want to love, but those we have loved sometimes have hurt us badly. We do not know what perils await us on the path ahead. Give us wisdom as we navigate poorly mapped trails. Grant us courage when we sense unidentified adversaries lurking nearby. Preserve our love for truth and help us to be people of integrity. We fear drowning in a torrent of angry abuse. May we listen well, so that we may discern danger when it exists, and recognize salvation when it is near. You have protected and have saved us in the past. We praise you and thank you. If you had not been there, we would have perished. You are our help and our savior. We thank you in Jesus’ name, amen.

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Prayer when We Have Had Enough

Weariness saps our vision and energy. We cannot concentrate on our goals because our weariness distracts our focus. I remember a general’s embarrassment when he had an automobile accident when he drove while impaired. He told his soldiers that he had learned an important lesson. The general was not under the influence alcohol or drugs that evening. No, he was completely sober. However, he had decided to embark on a road trip after a long and taxing day at work. His fatigue was so great that he lost focus and drifted off the road. Weariness impaired him. Grief wearies us as well, as does working on edge, with a sense that we must look over our shoulders for other’s approval while we work. When we sense disapproval, or even worse, contempt directed towards us continually, that sense begins to drain us. We become weary and frustrated at our failure to earn respect.
As travelers on their way to worship sing in Psalm 123, they voice a prayer that reveals their weariness, and also their yearning for God to intervene, to signal his approval of them, to show mercy when they have been worn out by contempt from others. They begin their prayer much as Jesus would begin what many call “The Lord’s Prayer,” by acknowledging the power and holiness of God:

“To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens” (Psalm 123:1).

They reflect on their dependence on God as they continue their prayer. Their (and our) relationship to God is like that of a servant or slave to a master. They and we search for signs of approval. The servant depends upon the master for income and for food. The worshipers continue,

“Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he has mercy upon us” (Psalm 123:2).

They need mercy, they yearn compassion, and so they pray. The inspiration for their prayer emerges as it concludes. This prayer for mercy has its origin in the worshipers’ perceiving contempt in others who did not work as hard or who were proud of their status in society. The arrogance these others displayed had drained the worshipers. It had frustrated them. It had wearied them. They had had enough! They prayed,

“Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt, our soul has had more than enough of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud” (Psalm 123:3-4).

As we read their prayer, we feel their weariness. I have felt so very tired when it seemed that nothing that I did pleased others, whether they were supervisors, peers, or those I was privileged to lead. In my frustration and my anger, as I found it harder to envision new, fresh direction, the words of Psalm 123 found a home in my prayers: “Lord, have mercy, for we have had enough of contempt.” Sometimes, we may earn contempt through ineptness or silliness. At other times, people scorn and mock because they do not know enough to understand what we have said or appreciate what we have done. In the psalm, the singers describe the scorners as “at ease” and “proud.” The scorners make it harder for the singers, for they grant them no respect.  They, and we, turn in our weariness to the only one who can provide relief and refreshment that will endure.
This prayer challenges us also to be humble as we regard the efforts of others, to appreciate and respect what they do. The singers ask for God’s mercy, but they also desire that the “proud” will place more value on what they do, what they say, or what they believe. In American society, we are tempted to deride those with whom we disagree, to treat them along with their opinions and ways of living with contempt. This prayer reminds us that we all are as servants to the one who is “enthroned in the heavens.” Everyone needs to pray as we look to him, “Lord, have mercy.

  • Quotations of the Bible are from the English Standard Version

O God enthroned in the heavens, we approach you and pray simply: Lord, have mercy on us. The pressures of life weigh us down. Disdain or contempt from our peers wearies us. Relieve the strain from our souls. Help us to remember our weariness and pain when we interact with others and are tempted to mock them for their ignorance or ineptitude. May we remember our struggles and treat others as we want to be treated. Lord, have mercy and light the way that we should walk. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem

jerusalem 1985

We pray for peace. We rarely pray for war or bloodshed. Some topics surface in prayers more frequently. We pray for the sick, the dying, and their families. We pray for wisdom and maturity to mark the actions and thinking of national leaders and legislators. We pray when grieving, angry, and depressed. We pray when worshipping.
Psalm 122 is a psalm of ascent, one of fifteen psalms that seem to have been sung or prayed by worshipers on their way to feasts in Jerusalem. Although major English translations employ different tenses for a verb about when the worshipers stand in Jerusalem, if they are not there already, they anticipate their arrival eagerly. To use an American idiom, the psalmist can “taste” the joy of being in Jerusalem, the home city of the temple of God:

1 I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the LORD!”
2 Our feet have been standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem!

The worship in Jerusalem testified to the unity of Israel’s tribal confederacy. Despite their differences, they unite within the walls of the city to worship the God who deliver, protects, and prospers. God has protected them and has enriched their people. They gather together to give thanks, as the law had decreed they should. They pray and they praise God as they thank him. Worship celebrates thankfulness, security, and joy. For these reasons, the psalmist exhorts:

6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
“May they be secure who love you!
7 Peace be within your walls
and security within your towers!”
8 For my brothers and companions’ sake
I will say, “Peace be within you!”
9 For the sake of the house of the LORD our God,
I will seek your good.

People still pray for the peace of Jerusalem today. Controversy surrounds its political and religious control. Israel and the Palestinian authority each claim it as capitol, but Israel controls it. A Muslim shrine stands on the site of the biblical Jewish temple. But, while we can and should pray for the peace of the city of Jerusalem, Israel, this psalm calls more for us to pray for peace among and of the people of God, to pray for the unity of the Messiah’s church. The author of the book of Hebrews wrote in chapter 12:

22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Like the worshipers in Psalm 122, we come to worship and pray for the peace and unity of God’s people. We rejoice in our salvation. We seek to obey the direction of our Lord. Israel was divided by tribal ancestry. We divide and create our own tribes over disagreements concerning doctrine and tradition. Personality differences and stubborn refusal to forgive also play key parts in our separating what Christ died to unite. We need to repent, to reawaken to the joy produced by God’s grace in Christ, and pray for the peace of “the city of the living God…the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven.” We too must pray with thankfulness and joy. Again the writer of Hebrews encourages us,

“Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29).

  • Biblical quotations are from the English Standard Version.

O God of peace, we pray for the unity and the flourishing of your people.  We pray that we may treasure our salvation and celebrate with joy our liberation each time we gather together with other believers to praise your name and thank you for your love. We grieve because we realize the threats to the peace of your church abound. Too often we augment them with our own selfishness and pride. Ignite within us once again the sense of wonder at your presence in the midst of your people. Help us to recall what a privilege it is to be called by God to be a royal priesthood of believers.  We pray for the peace of the land where Jesus walked on earth as well, that Jerusalem may once more be a haven of peace, prosperity, and security for those who call upon your name. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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Prayer for Safety when Traveling to Worship

In early 2008, I was driving on a dirt road in Arizona near the border with Mexico when I had a flat tire as I crossed a dry gully. There was no cellphone signal. In the distance I could see mountains in Mexico. My main concern was that I might be there for hours without seeing anyone friendly if I had difficulty changing the tire.
In Psalm 121, another song that pilgrims to Jerusalem’s temple sang as they travelled there to worship, the psalmist writes, “I lift my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” In Derek Kidner’s commentary on this psalm, he wonders whether the writer envisioned rescue arriving from those hills or if he saw them as “menacing,” perhaps the haunt of robbers who might attack. Both those possibilities occurred to me, the second more strongly, as I observed the hills to the south of me. The Israelite psalmist might also have alluded to high places where his countrymen mixed worship of God with that of other deities like Baal and Asherah. The hills, whatever his reference, emphatically were not his source of help. He wrote, and the pilgrims sang,

“My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:2).

He lifts his eyes, as he and other Israelites (and early Christians – see 1 Timothy 1:1-2) did when they prayed to God. He needed help, and nervous pilgrims traveling through wilderness areas might well have thought they needed help, too. They would have taken comfort in theme of this psalm – God keeps his people safe. The Lord is the worshiper’s keeper (verse 5), the shade that protects from the sun. The Lord is not a watchman who falls asleep and endangers those under his care:
“He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:3-4).
God’s protection extends beyond physical protection of his people. We pray with confidence in his love, his reliability, and his power. We trust that he will help us overcome evil:

“The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore” (Psalm 121:7-8).

Some Christians today risk encountering danger when they travel to worship, whether in an urban center with a high crime rate, or an isolate rural mountainous setting with treacherous roads, or in some parts of the world – neighbors who are hostile to Christianity. As they pray for safety and security, they and we should remember this psalm about the God who keeps his people secure as they go from place to place. This psalm, not a prayer, assumes prayer and the conditions that provoke us to pray with urgency.
As I opened the trunk to my car to pull out the spare tire and jack on that isolated dirt road in Arizona, one of the people to whom I was travelling to preach drove up. He jumped out of his vehicle and, much more proficiently that I would have, quickly removed the flat tire and replaced it. I thanked him, and thanked the Lord for providing this answer to my earlier prayer.
• Quotations of the Bible are from the English Standard Version

O God, you love your pilgrim people. We travel as strangers through our lives, spiritual migrants searching for our eternal home. We pray as we travel that you will guide us and keep us safe. Like the psalmist, we remember that you are our refuge and our trustworthy Savior. Thank you, Lord, for your love, and for providing ways of escape when we fear most. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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Reflecting on the Anniversary of My Son’s Death

I’ve reflected today on Psalm 90. While today is recognized in the United States this year as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, January 21 in 2019 is the fourth anniversary of a day that began with a telephone call informing me that my older son had died. The cavity in my life still exists. I still grieve the death of young man who had so much to give. As I said at his funeral, “I wasn’t finished being his Dad.” Caleb’s death, however, awakened afresh in me a realization that I must not waste the time God has given me. I have not always honored that awareness. Yet, that truth emerges more and more as I remember the suddenness of my son’s passing away. The psalmist prays,

“You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man! For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past or as a watch in the night. You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers” (Psalm 90:3-6).

When I visit my son’s grave, I see the back of his tombstone first and the words inscribed there further jar me into treasuring this day. The back of his tombstone is my tombstone; my name and that of my wife are engraved there already. The monument reminds me that every day counts and must not be discarded without thought. I want to pray then with Psalm 90,

“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. Return, O LORD! How long? Have pity on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:12-14).

My pain persists, although not so crippling as it threatened to be in the beginning. Preaching for a local church has helped reignite my own passion for life. My wife’s patience and love as she grieved alongside me has sustained me as well. Friends who have endured similar loss have encouraged me; I hope I have lifted them up, too. I still miss my son desperately, and treasure the memory of the last words he spoke to me, “I love you, Daddy!” Even in his late twenties, I was still “Daddy” to him. He was pragmatic and a concrete thinker much more than I, yet he valued his friends and loved to play. He was a good neighbor, I learned after he died. His security cameras had helped police capture burglars that had stolen from other houses nearby.

When my phone rang that morning, I feared that my mother had died. She recently had been in poor health. She would live another year. Caleb, however, was gone. I’m glad I heard him confess his faith in Jesus and that I had the honor of baptizing him into Christ. I still miss him. I get nervous when I have not talked for several days to my other children. I love them with equal intensity. Sheldon Van Auken, as he reflected on his grief after the death of his wife, wrote of God’s severe mercy and described life as a “vale of soul-making.” I pray that I may remember better the call to use each day wisely, and so I also say with Psalm 90,

“Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands! (Psalm 90:15-17).

  • Quotations of the Bible are from the English Standard Version.

O God, our Father, our relationships with our children reflect in some small way your investment in our lives as father to your adopted children in Christ. We laugh and rejoice when our children thrive. We fret and cry when they suffer. We grieve and wail when they die before we do. You guide us as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, through this vale of soul-making. Help us to lead others through it when they grieve. Renew us as we enjoy our lives that you have given us and the work that you have prepared for us to do. Heal us of our hurt. Energize us to be the parents and grandparents you dream for us to be to our family that survives. Establish the work of our hands. I pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

caleb and michael

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Devoted to Prayer?

When you think about activities of the Church that reveal its priorities, what comes to mind? Preaching the Bible? Observing Communion? Helping the poor? Healing the sick? Teaching our young the fundamentals of the faith? Evangelism? Foreign missions? Baptism? How about prayer?
After Jesus ascended, Acts 1:14 says of his disciples, “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.”
After the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, Peter’s inspiring sermon on Pentecost, and the subsequent baptism of three thousand, Acts 2:42 notes, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to breaking of bread and the prayers.” Shortly thereafter, Acts 3:1 observes, “Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour.” Prayer remained an integral part of life for disciples of Jesus as they became his church.
When controversy erupted among the disciples about the failure to feed the Greek-speaking widows, the apostles encouraged the disciples to pick out seven men to oversee the daily distribution of food, so that they might “devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).
Later the apostle Paul would include within his letter to the church in Rome this admonition, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12). He would write to the church in Colossae, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2).
The practice of prayer permeated the early church. Leaders especially devoted themselves to prayer. Hints of continuing to observe regular times for prayer remain in the book of Acts (3:1; 10:9). In James 5:13, the brother of the Lord associates prayer by elders with care for the sick.
In my @CallFireSeminar tweet today, I asked, “Do you have scheduled times you pray every day, pray for certain events, or pray on the run?” (see the sidebar for the link.) What place does prayer have in your life? What role does prayer play in the rhythm of your religious community’s life? Are you devoted to prayer? Is your church devoted to prayer?

In the passages listed earlier, prayer was linked with fellowship, teaching, preaching, study of the Word, and healing the sick. I encourage you to study the prayers and prayer practices used by followers of God in the Bible. That’s what this blog’s focus is. Make conversing with God in prayer a greater priority this year. As the apostles and the family of Jesus did, devote yourself to prayer.

  • Quotations of the Bible are from the English Standard Version.

O Father, If you are like me, you love to converse with your children. Like the people in song “Cat’s in the Cradle,” we sometimes get too busy and devote time in our schedules to talk with you. You protect us with your love. You guide us with your Word. You provide for us. May we recognize the evidence of your care. May we, as did the earlies disciple, devote ourselves to prayer. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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Prayer for Rescue from Deceit

Few experiences are so distressing as having someone lie about you.  Anger and bitterness threaten to consume my soul when I am the victim of slander. The writer of Psalm 120 prays for deliverance from lies. He warns of the vengeance that the Lord will mete out to deceivers when he delivers him.  The psalmist laments that the tortuous situation is compounded by his living in an isolated location among a people who do not share his values.

Psalm 120 is the first of several Psalms traditionally called psalms of ascent.  They allegedly were recited or sung by pilgrims on their way to a feast at the temple.  These worshippers, if they travelled far, may have known well themselves the pain of which they sung as they repeated these words:

“In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. Deliver me, O LORD, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue. What shall be given to you, and what more shall be done to you, you deceitful tongue? A warrior’s sharp arrows, with glowing coals of the broom tree! Woe to me that I sojourn in Meshech, that I dwell among the tents of Kedar! Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace. I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war!” (Psalm 121:1-7)

When we go to worship with others, we struggle to lay aside anger, frustration, and weariness that cripple us when we respond to attacks (verbal or physical) against us. If we engage social media, we may find it difficult to avoid being drawn into bitter exchanges with people who have religious, social, or political preferences that differ radically from our own.  I myself have learned to review what I write before I press send.  Often, I will delete my comment before I publish it, realizing that what I have written will only spark more conflict. When we pray, we find reprieve from our face turning red and our heart racing in anger as we pour out our distress to God. Deception angers us today as much as it did then.  The pain of the deceived helps me remember the value of truth told with love.

  • Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version of the Bible

O God who calls us to worship, as we prepare to worship you, arguments of  previous hours and regretted decisions (or visions of future choices) cloud our mind.  We want clarity in our lives and fairness from those we encounter.  To make good decisions, we need truth from those with whom we deal. Mold us more perfectly into people of integrity. Rescue us from those who lie to us. Show us the way to peace. Help us to persuade those who have chosen wrong courses and grant us ample dosage of humility so that we may recognize when we are the ones who are for war when we should be choosing peace.  May we worship you, our protector and friend, with focus, love, and truth. In Jesus’ name, amen.

 

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