Prayer of a Frustrated Traveler

The prayer of psalm 39 laments, “For what do I wait?” We might ask, in concert with the Psalmist, why do we wait when life frustrates, when we confront the reality of life’s brevity, when it may seem that there is no hope. Some choose to surrender, to commit suicide, when the pressure grows so great and they see no doors in the metaphorical (or literal) walls that surround them.  Others fret to themselves and keep the tension within.  Eventually they boil emotionally, and may explode in anger that frightens those about them.  This was the psalmist’s choice.  He describes his plight in the first few verses:

“I said, ‘I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue; I will guard my mouth with a muzzle, so long as the wicked are in my presence.’ I was mute and silent; I held my peace to no avail, and my distress grew worse” (Psalm 39:1-3).

As I read it, he wanted so desperately to please God through his self-control, especially in regard to his language, that he restrained himself from rebuking others for sin.  He watched himself even more carefully in the presence of the “wicked.”  The tension within reveals his quandary.  He has not been honest with others, or with himself.  He is angry because of this frustration. He frets also about how short life is. Like Adam, who explained his sin to God by blaming first his wife and then God himself, the psalmist attributes his state of mind and failure to speak up to God. He says,

“And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in you. Deliver me from all my transgressions. Do not make me the scorn of the fool! I am mute; I do not open my mouth, for it is you who have done it. Remove your stroke from me; I am spent by the hostility of your hand. When you discipline a man with rebukes for sin, you consume like a moth what is dear to him; surely all mankind is a mere breath!” (Psalm 39:7-11)

Even before he vents to God about the brevity of life, he confesses the truth he glimpses, “For what do I wait? My hope is in you” (verse 6). He has spoken of his concern as for who will inherit the wealth for which he has worked.  He has wondered just how long his fleeting days will last. He fears that his actions will cause even the foolish to scorn him. He wonders whether he will know joy again. I thought of nineteenth century poet Thomas Moore’s “The Last Rose of Summer” as I considered the psalmist’s grief.  Moore grieves in the last stanza of that poem about the death of a loved one and writes,

“So soon may I follow When friendships decay And from love’s shining circle The gems drop away  When true hearts lie withered And fond ones are flown.  Oh! Who would inhabit This bleak world alone.”

The psalmist grieves, as would Moore centuries later, but the psalmist perceives himself as held mute by God and as rebuked by God.  Moore longs for death. Each questions the value of life under the constraints he knows.  The psalmist realizes that he must place his hope in God.  He grasps also that life is a pilgrimage and we are sojourners (or refugees) with God.  His awareness of God’s watching him causes him to despair, to ask God to look away.  As the writer of Hebrews observed, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).  The psalmist hopes in God, his host, but fears God, his judge.  Reverence for God must co-exist with hope in God.  I have wondered if we sing too glibly about being a friend of God.  As we journey through life, with God as our father and following Jesus, who leads the way before us, we experience hardship.  God trains us and disciplines us.  We grow in spirit and in faith when we keep our eyes trained on the one who shows the way.  We wince under the gaze of the one who knows our hearts. We worry whether we have wasted our brief time here. We yearn for awareness of God’s love. We pray with the psalmist,

“Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear to my cry; hold not your peace at my tears! For I am a sojourner with you, a guest, like all my fathers. Look away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more!” (Psalm 39:12,13)

(Quotations are from the English Standard Version of the Bible)

 

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We Pray, and We Wait

I’m in a waiting room at a hospital this morning.  Waiting can be difficult.  As I write this hundreds of people wait in shelters for the opportunity to return to their homes.  Many do not know what damage Hurricane Irma inflicted on their property.  I suspect that some will breathe a deep sigh of relief when they discover that relatively little damage occurred.  Others, however, may discover that their home lies in ruins and much that they treasured has been damaged or destroyed.  Now, however, they wait. I wait. None of us knows exactly what will happen next.

Many of the storm evacuees have prayed.  I have prayed. Now we wait.  Waiting challenges faith.  As time passes, we doubt.  We protest: “Why, Lord.” In an automated society, we want service now. Some of my friends in the Southeastern United States never left home when the hurricane neared.  Their prayers grew more intense and they questioned their judgment in staying. Many think now as one man I heard being interviewed in a news report – that they will evacuate next time, never again choosing to .at business signs and roofs that that have been ripped apart by the wind.

Even when the waiting ends then, we don’t always find satisfaction. Discovery of reality gives birth to renewed prayers of anguish and cries for relief.  Even as the prophet Isaiah delivered a message of hope to the beleaguered nation of Judah, he prayed,

“The path of the righteous is level; you make level the way of the righteous. In the path of your judgments, O LORD, we wait for you; your name and remembrance are the desire of our soul. My soul yearns for you in the night; my spirit within me earnestly seeks you. For when your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness” (Isaiah 26:7-10).

So, too, we pray and we wait. We yearn for a world without power outages where the hungry have food and the naked have clothes.  We seek reconciliation between bickering brothers; we hope for an end to fear and hatred for people from other races or ethnic groups. As Isaiah suggested in his prayer, judgment awakens one to the folly of a path chosen. Crisis exposes the silliness of arguments between people who desperately need to work together to survive. Numerous government agencies and volunteer agencies have mobilized thousands of workers to help devastated communities recover. Weary neighbors are setting long-standing disagreements aside to help each other out. Perhaps we are learning righteousness as we work together. We still yearn for healing and repair, for our world to be “right.”  Let’s pray that renewed civic cooperation will motivate renewed evaluation of spiritual damage, that we will seek the way of the Lord more urgently and find in him the fulfillment of our desire. As refugees from the storm reflect on their flight across state lines, perhaps they will gain appreciation for the motives that drive others to flee religious persecution or economic disaster to seek shelter in another country.  We wait, and we pray.

O Lord who sees and hears, thousands of displaced people cry out to you for relief. Unbelievers scoff, and in moments of desperation, we may doubt, but trust that you who created can restore.  Renew our damaged faith, and bless those serving as your hands who work assiduously to repair damaged houses, roads, bridges and power lines. May we, and those who suffer as they rebuild after an earthquake in Mexico or grasp for survival after a cataclysmic flood in Bangladesh, find from you reason to hope and to trust. May the working together of compassionate people ignite a restoration of peace and a spiritual revival as wrecked lives are rebuilt and infrastructure is repaired. In Jesus’s name, amen.

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Prayer when Hurricanes and Fires Destroy

As we contemplate the devastating losses experienced from flooding and wildfires in the United States, many are responding by donating money or supplies to charitable organization or donating their time to help clean up or rebuild. Many also are praying for recovery for victims of Hurricane Harvey and wildfires in the Pacific Northwest.  Meanwhile, millions in the southeastern United States and in the Caribbean region watch the path of Hurricane Irma with baited breath. Psalm 118 is instructive for those who pray in such circumstances. Written originally for people surrounded by hostile people and nations, the psalm and the prayers within it focus on the enduring love of the Lord, and on the assistance and refuge available through him. People of faith do not view God as a magical talisman or a “get out of jail free” card; he is not their “imaginary friend in the sky.” The Psalmist calls on God who liberates in his time of distress (verse 5), but he also reflects on the God who “has disciplined me severely, but has not given me over to death” (verse 18). God has created the world in which we live. Our experiences within it influence the shaping of our souls.  We may cower or we may reverence the God who created both storm and humanity as we contemplate forces that exceed our technology’s capacity to resist.

Psalm 118:4 Let those who fear the Lord say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” 5 Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me free. 6 The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me? 7 The Lord is on my side as my helper; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me. 8 It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man…14 The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.

As the storm approaches the United States, and as fires rage in the northwestern region of the nation, people pray, and they act also to protect the devastated and defend the vulnerable. Thousands of government employees, National Guardsmen, and first responders prepare to mobilize to help.  Among the military personnel are Chaplains and enlisted Religious Affairs Specialist who will pray, but also help plan, and will use their training to help emotionally worn helpers and victims adapt to new realities and somehow make sense of their new reality. The Psalmist continues:

17 I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord. 18 The Lord has disciplined me severely, but he has not given me over to death. 19 Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.

The storm will pass and the fires will wane. In the aftermath, let us pray that survivors will have the resilience to survey what remains and to pray:

21 I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. 22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. 23 This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. 24 This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. 25 Save us, we pray, O Lord! O Lord, we pray, give us success! …28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God; I will extol you. 29 Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!

Psalm 118 recognizes the reality of pain and consequences. The psalmist does not pretend that his anguish will disappear.  However, he confirms his faith in a God who loves and sees in the midst of opposition, anxiety, and fear, that this too is a day that God has made in which we may rejoice.  I have friends who live among the fire-ravaged states; I have immediate family-members, friends, and former colleagues who are in the path of Hurricane Irma. Other friends still are sorting through what remains after the onslaught of Hurricane Harvey.  Please pray for all these whose lives have been, or may be, turned upside down through these cataclysmic events. And, if you have the opportunity or ability, act to help. Remember that the God who loves and liberates still has agents working on his behalf in the midst of chaos and destruction. Remember the God who is your strength and your song.

As storms and fires batter our nation, I pray, God, that you will provide insights that will generate wisdom and maturity in the midst of chaos.  I pray for calm in crisis, and for forgiving spirits as long-time enemies set aside grudges to rebuild communities. As winds accelerate, thunder roars, and lightning strikes, may those who huddle in shelters kneel in courageous prayer rather than cowering in frantic fear.  May they have a vision for how you will use them to rebuild and repair what has been damaged, whether physically or emotionally.  Thank you for first responders, and for agencies whose workers will strive to bring back order.  I pray that leaders will act decisively, wisely, and courageously to meet needs and to ensure that processes that prepare for events like this are not removed because of budgetary policies. Your love endures. May our love and our faith grow. I pray in Jesus’s name, amen.

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Prayer After an Eclipse

Last week an eclipse darkened much of the United States.  My home was in the path of totality where greatest darkness occurred. Sadly, it was an overcast day, so I did not reap the full benefit of my eclipse glasses.  It did get very dark just after one o’clock in the afternoon. I took pictures just before and after the height of the darkness. The rare total solar eclipse generated great interest. Many traveled to reach  a place where they could experience it in its fullness.  Like me, many sought special glasses that would enable them to watch without damaging their eyes.  Some bought tee shirts that commemorated the event. Parties and other gatherings celebrated the event.

Amos chapter 8 describes a time of feasting and singing where merchants complained about having to stop selling because of the Sabbath. It was a time when shopkeepers used inaccurate scales to defraud their customers and considered selling the worthless chaff from the wheat. The wealthy regarded the poor  as potential property rather than as people made in the image of God.  God asked through Amos, “Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who dwells in it?” (Amos 8:8). Then the prophet reveals,

“And on that day,’ declares the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentation..” (Amos 8:9-10a).

God then declares that he then will enact a famine, not of food or water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD.  People will seek frantically for revelation from God, for words of hope to sustain them, but they will find nothing.  Unsatisfied spiritual hunger will frustrate the people.

Two eclipses occurred during Amos’s lifetime in Israel. His prophecy foreshadowed the end of the kingdom following neglect of God’s law.  The message of Amos 8 tempers our celebration of having witnessed a historic eclipse.  Has the hearing of God’s word been eclipsed by the darkness of cultural distractions?  Have we too lost our way, protesting calls to worship while we seek to profit at the expense of the needy? Amos prophesies at the end of chapter 8 that the eclipse in his time anticipated the ending of idolatry in Israel.  People would no longer pray to statues they had built nor worship the oppression of the vulnerable.

The ending of vain prayer and false worship reminds of the need for fervent prayer and willing worship to a living God.  Even as we marvel at an event in the heavens that we still cannot control, let us remember to pray to the One who created the sun and the moon.  Let us consume the word of God as we read it avidly while we still can. Let us not take for granted the opportunity to hear the good news of Christ or the freedom to worship him in spirit and in truth.

Creator of the stars and our planet, Sustainer of life, we pray that we will heed Amos’s reminder to consume the spiritual nourishment of your Word while we may.  You call us through your word to reserve time for rest and worship; you instruct us to conduct business honestly and to treat the poor with respect.  Help us to realize when we are closing our minds to your guidance.  When we walk in darkness, remind us to move towards the light of your way.  In Jesus’ name, amen.

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Prayer Combat Inspection

When I was in the Army, I struggled at times with PCI, Pre-Combat Inspection.  PCI meant that I would review a packing list with the training or the deployment to discern whether I had the required equipment.  I would also check cleanliness and working status of the equipment or clothing. Then I had to pack the equipment into the prescribed number of duffel bags (This was what challenged me most; There always was required equipment outside the bags when I had packed all I could push into the bags).  I struggled also because I tend to procrastinate, so I risked not having time to correct a deficiency.  As the year passed, I became more proficient at PCI.  I learned how to fold clothing and pack equipment more efficiently. Eventually, I had room for extra supplies that I wanted to pack.  Practice and discipline made the difference.

Regular readers of this blog know that there are numerous biblical passages where we can learn to pray by reading the prayer of someone like Nehemiah or by reviewing what Paul wrote concerning his prayers for various churches.  Several of the Psalms are prayers that teach clearly that not all prayers are alike. Jeremiah’s prayers of protest and Hezekiah’s prayers for guidance and healing also teach us much about prayer and the God to whom we pray.

In Matthew chapter 6, a teacher instructs his students about prayer.  He is the Master Teacher, Jesus himself.  Jesus sets out some principles that can guide us as we prepare our armor for spiritual combat and prepare to call for fire.

Pray to God, not for praise from others.  The instruction of Matthew 6 applies most specifically for personal prayers, but also has relevance when leading others in prayer.  When having prayers as part of your personal devotion to God, seek a quiet private place to pray.  Jesus says to go into your room and shut the door.  Your personal prayers are for conversation with God, not for gaining attention from others.  When leading others in prayer, prayers like that found in Acts 4 beginning at verse 23 teach us that such prayers include praise for God and attention to the needs of others.

Pray with purpose.  Jesus gives the disciples a model prayer in Matthew 6.  Sometimes it is called the Lord’ prayer, but it really was more a prayer template for the disciples.  Again, other biblical prayers give us insight as to what we may pray. This prayer includes praise for God, gratitude for what God has given, a petition for the coming (or growth) of his kingdom, a statement of hope that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven (foreshadowing Jesus’ later statement in prayer, “Not my will, but yours be done.).  Jesus includes a request for basic needs like food and asks that God will protect from temptation.

Pray with a forgiving spirit.  The most jarring request in this prayer for me has always begin the petition that requests that God forgive us as we forgive others.  Do we really want God to forgive us as we forgive other people?  Much of the tension and unrest in societies around the world exists because people hesitate, or even refuse, to forgive. This prayer for forgiveness then is a prayer for unity, between God and believer, between the person who prays and others.

Jesus provides a prayer combat inspection checklist that reminds us what we need as we prepare for spiritual warfare.  He calls us to humility, to intentionality, and to willingness to forgive others as we prepare to pray. He did not, and does not, intend for this prayer in Matthew 6 to serve as a magical formula to be recited word for word in every circumstance. There may be times when the words of this prayer match what we need to pray, especially when we pray together.  However, the attention to praying with purpose reminds us that we may need to adapt this template to meet our circumstances, much as the Pre-Combat Inspection checklist for a Field Artillery unit will differ from the checklist for an Infantry unit. With practice and with discipline, we will mature as disciples of Jesus in the content and regularity of prayer.

Help us to glorify your name, O God, by the decisions that we make and the words that we speak.  In a world filled with angry confrontation and holding of ancient grudges, we plead that you will turn our hearts to you and teach us to forgive as we pray that you will forgive us.  Remind us that what we want is often more than we need, and provide what we need as we go forward. Rescue us when we are surrounded by temptation. Give us wisdom so that we choose paths that will help us to avoid evil even while we work for the achievement of your will and the advancing of your cause.  In Jesus’ name, amen.

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When Prayer Is Not Enough

Sometimes it seems as if I’m praying to a wall.  No apparent answer greets repeated requests; no recognizable acknowledgement responds to prayers of praise and gratitude.  Meanwhile, frustration increases and disappointment soars as life sours before me.  When this happens, I could conclude that God doesn’t exist and that I have been wasting my time praying to him. Indeed, several tweeters and bloggers have written messages that shout that such a decision is the only rational one.  I could decide to vent my disappointment and anger in my prayers. Some prayers in the Bible (See Psalm 13) suggest that course of action is a legitimate one.

Several biblical passages suggest another alternative when our prayers seem to fall on deaf ears. In Isaiah 58, God entreats the prophet to “lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression…”  Had the people ignored the worship of God. No! God continues, “Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God, they ask of me righteous judgments and delight to draw near to God.” The people of God under consideration still worshiped God. They prayed and even fasted. They enjoyed worship and the practice of spiritual disciplines. God, however, was not pleased. He disregarded their prayers and ignored their fasts.  Why? Their attitudes and their actions were not consistent with their words.

  God responded to these avid practitioners of prayer and fasting, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the lord shall be your rear guard” (Isaiah 58:6-8).

Prayer, even when accompanied by self-denial in fasting, is not enough.  Our actions must also demonstrate our faith. Prayer must be accompanied by seeking justice and by helping others. God continues to speak through Isaiah in chapter 58,

“Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday” (Isaiah 58:9-10).

Our walks through spiritual deserts sometimes are preceded by decisions to turn away from the will of God in regards to ethics and compassion for the vulnerable.  We treat others harshly, forgetting how we would feel if we heard such words and attitudes directed toward us. Prayer is only part of our conversation with God.  Living his will deepens our relationship with God, too. Malachi chapter 2 describes worshipers who flood God’s altar with their tears and their cries, yet are unfaithful in their covenant with him and with their spouse, who plead for help, but hold back from giving when they can help others.

This does not mean that we should not pray until we are sinless. We should, however, take a hard look at ourselves and strive to live lives that are worthy of the God we profess to serve.

(Thanks for reading. Please click the link to the Call for Fire Seminar Facebook page/  If you’re in the Midwestern United States, consider coming to the Call for Fire Seminar at Leavenworth Church of Christ August 25-27. You can find out more details on the Facebook page.)

God, help me to remember what I have seen when I turn away from my reflection in the mirror of your Word to interact with others.  Your grace and your love, incarnated so vividly in Jesus, provide a model for me and show me how I should walk and talk.  Help me to live for you, and not to trust only in having talked with you. Hear my cries when I grieve. Turn my heart and my feet toward you. In Jesus’ name, Amen

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A Live Call for Fire Seminar

Leavenworth Church of Christ (Leavenworth, Kansas) will host a Call for Fire Seminar August 25th through 27th. So, you ask, is Call for Fire Seminar more than a blog? Yes, indeed. First, however, it is not a careful study of military procedures, although I apply a term used by the military to request assistance in times of urgent need to prayer.  It is a weekend of intense Bible study, prayer, and singing that will deepen relationships with God by increasing understanding and practice of personal and congregational prayer.

What do our prayers say about how our faith in God and how we perceive the Creator?  As we study prayers by heroes of faith in the Bible during a Call for Fire Seminar, we consider how their words testify to their faith and reveal their doubts.  The angry frustration of a Psalmist’s prayer may shock some of us, as may the passionate cry to God by a prophet who desperately wanted to stop preaching, but could not. We learn how to pray for others and how to pray for the glory of God.  We study how an apostle told Christians what he prayed to God concerning them.  We consider what the prayers in the book of Revelation tell us about the meaning of that book. We discuss what to pray when we hurt so badly we don’t want to talk to God. We seek to learn what the Bible teaches about the connection of prayer with becoming a Christian.

The Call for Fire Seminar is an event that any of your friends or family members can attend.  Like the apostles, who said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray…”(Luke 11:1), many of us want to learn how to communicate our fears, our hopes, our praise, and our doubt to God.  Others may simply wonder what prayer is, or why we pray when God already knows what we want. In the first session, we will learn what connection prayer has to the armor of God that protects and arms a Christian for spiritual conflict. If you are interested in attending, look at the Call for Fire Seminar Facebook page for information about the event.  I encourage to like the Facebook page while you’re there. If you’re interested in attending, let me know. Plan now to devote that weekend, August 25-27, to growing stronger in your prayer life and in your relationship with God. You’re invited.

Lord, You calm the storms when we fear that our lives will careen off metaphorical cliffs to certain destruction.  When the storms do not dissipate, you provide the courage and stamina we need to endure and to persevere.  We may question your love, but you continue to pursue us through the call of your Son’s message. Your love enlarges our capacity for forgiveness, for we remember what we have been forgiven.  We envision bold works of service on your behalf, then we waiver when we realize the burden we will have to bear, and the weight we will ask others to share. Grant wisdom to discern the course we should take. Sharpen our hearing so that we will hear both needed correction and the whispers of encouragement that will motivate us to continue. Turn our hearts, the hearts of those whom we encounter, and the hearts of national leaders to yourself.  We fear the paralysis of apathy. Energize our faith that we may do with vigor and enthusiasm the works you have prepared for us to do. Help us to realize when we endanger ourselves by our choices and our priorities. May those we encounter praise you. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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