Prayer of a Veteran

Bible study

A military veteran prays in Psalm 144. To be sure, this veteran/author may be the king (Verses 2 and 10 suggest at the least a petition on behalf of the king), but he still has trained for war and has fought successfully. He attributes his skill and his victories to his trainer:

“Praise be to the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle. He is my loving God and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield, in whom I take refuge, who subdues peoples under me” (Psalm 144:1-2).

God trains him for war. He is this warrior’s fortress and stronghold. God prepares his to wage war offensively, but also defends him – God is his shield and his refuge against his enemies. Psalm 144’s beginning resembles that of Psalm 18, which praises God with identical terms but does not address him as a trainer for war, a drill sergeant. However, later verses in Psalm 18 suggest that it, too, is the prayer of a warrior:

“You, LORD, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light. With your help I can advance against a troop; with my God I can scale a wall…He trains my hands for battle; my arms can bend a bow of bronze (Psalm 18:28-29, 34 NIV).

Both these Psalms are soldiers’ prayers, even if the soldier may be the commander-in-chief. In those days, the king sometimes was among the combatants. Israel’s King Saul died after being wounded in a battle. Three of his sons died in the same battle. The prayers assume that God approves of at least some instances of war. Psalm 144 pointedly calls for fire, asking God to act in specific ways to defeat an enemy. Psalm 18 records the fact of such a call, followed by a recounting of how God acted in answer to the prayer (Psalm 18:6-15).

Military personnel, to include chaplains, have used passages like these two psalms of prayer to encourage and inspire one another as they train for war or go into combat. The prayers imply a trusting faith that God approves the combatant’s course of behavior. The prayers confide in a God who will equip, will sustain, will train and will energize during life-threatening battles. He will protect and provide refuge. Soldiers incur physical injury. Some witness events that they will scar their memories for the rest of their lives. Some may take action, even if inadvertently or if reluctantly under orders, that violate their consciences and create a moral injury that persists after their return home. Others witness the death of a dear friend and wonder why they survive. As a chaplain in a combat zone, I served with medical and mortuary affairs personnel on a team that struggled to identify the physical remains of combatants. Awareness of these potential consequences stokes the flames of fear. Prayer, faith in a God who knows and approves at some level, and confidence that their cause is just mitigates the fear and allows the soldier to continue.

Psalm 144 reminds of other variables in this prayer that a pacifist might dismiss as blood-thirsty or anachronistic for followers of Jesus. The praying soldier offers his prayer to “my loving God,” not to a bellicose deity intent on bloodshed. The final verses of the prayer offer another reason why the soldier goes to war and explain what he believes God will provide in the wake of victory:

“Then our sons in their youth will be like well-nurtured plants and our daughters will be like pillars carved to adorn a palace. …There will be no breaching of walls, no going into captivity, no cry of distress in our streets: (Psalm 144:12,14b).
The soldiers prays for victory so that his family may survivor and prospers. He hopes that agony and suffering will be avoided in his hometown. The praying soldier, like almost all soldiers throughout history, prays that the aftermath of combat will be a lasting peace. The prayer concludes,

“Blessed is the people of whom this true; blessed is the people whose God is the LORD” (Psalm 144:15)

• Biblical quotations are from the 2011 edition of the New International Version.

 

God who trains for war, who equips your people for the tasks he has prepared, we pray that your love will fuel our confidence to seek justice and to protect the vulnerable and the oppressed. We who are veterans harbor chilling memories of charred flesh and agonized cries for help, of decisions made in moments of stress that later are questioned in our nightmares. Thank you for protecting us, for having given us courage when we needed it and refuge in our most desperate moments. Heal our minds and our bodies from the injuries we have suffered. Help us to be patient with those who do not understand what we endure or why we did what we did. Help us to forgive. Thank you for our families who worried and persevered in our absences. We pray for their prosperity and safety. We pray that as our military trains, that they will master skills that they will never have to use. We pray for peace, but even more for justice and reconciliation. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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Prayer for the Abused

In Luke 4, Jesus reads in Nazareth’s synagogue from what we call chapter 61 of Isaiah. He affirms that the reading reveals his mission, that his presence and his ministry fulfills the words of the prophet. Jesus says,

 

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19)

 

The passage in Isaiah continues with these words: And provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair…” (Isaiah 61:3a). It’s clear that Jesus as God’s Messiah (Christ) has a mission to transform grieving and despair into joy, hope, and praise. That mission becomes ours when we confess faith in Jesus and promise to obey him.
October has been Domestic Violence Awareness Month in the United States. Articles like this one have drawn attention to the scope of violence within families. Much attention rightly is given to the plight of victimized women and children who, when they try to escape, encounter dark futures in shelters, poverty, and untimely death. The article cited notes that eighty-five percent of victims are women and ninety percent of perpetrators are men. What many overlook is that a significant percentage of victims are male and that the abusive spouse or parent or child less frequently but still often is female. A movie title about the phenomenon from the 1990s captured a chilling aspect with its title, “Men Don’t Tell.” In other words, male victims of spousal abuse are less likely to report, and when they do report, are more likely to be ignored or even ridiculed. Both male and female victims experience physical and emotional trauma that will resonate for years afterward. People who mean well may strongly encourage them to return to their abuser. The victim is asked, sometimes years later, to recount the most ghastly and traumatic moments of his or her life. When the aftermath in a marriage leads to divorce, and the victim is a minister, some church leaders consider themselves doing the will of God if they conduct a hostile interrogation, and question the minister’s qualification to serve if the victim does not want to talk about it. On the other hand, when a leader is the perpetrator, other leaders may seek to excuse or forgive the behavior quickly, allowing an abuser to lead in the presence of traumatized people. Victims of domestic violence need hope, safety, protection, and encouragement. The mission of Jesus and his Church aligns precisely with those needs. It gets more complex when the offender seeks help, too. Forgiveness does not require trust or restitution. The final verses of the biblical book of Jude neatly summarize what those encounter who seek to help the offender overcome his sin: “to others show mercy, mixed with fear – hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh (Jude 23).”
Christians, like Jesus, have been commissioned to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners of trauma and sin, to set the oppressed free. We pray for healing of physical and emotional wounds. We pray that we will have patience as we try to help people who fear to seek help or who still love the person who is hurting them so badly. We pray for safety and for people to treat their own family members with love. We pray that we will execute the mission as Jesus would have – with love and healing care.

O God who protects the vulnerable, we tremble when we contemplate the choices that victims of family violence have to make to protect themselves. We shake with anger that women and men cower while being assaulted, hide to escape the wrath of a spouse, conceal their wounds while they try to understand what is happening to them. Helping people who are hurting and ashamed even they are the ones being battered is hard. Give us patience, love, and understanding. Open the eyes and ears of social workers, ministers, elders, and police officers, so that they may save the victim rather than justify or even assist the abuser. Protect victims; give them courage to seek help. Bring to repentance those who think they must re-open the wounds of the traumatized. May we see clearly the path that Jesus, our pioneer, has blazed for us and follow it faithfully. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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When Prayer Is Ritual

Prayer sometimes is ritual. When churches pray the model prayer of Matthew 6 (also know as The Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father) as a congregation, or recite together “Hear our prayer” as responses to pre-determined prayers during a time of worship, the prayer qualifies as ritual, even if deeply moving to the congregant. There rarely are surprises. No one protests about the petition to be forgiven as we forgive others in the model prayer; I have never heard someone shout out, “That’s not my prayer!” during the time of response in congregational prayer of confession instead of “Hear our prayer.” Ministers or priests in some churches speak much of the communion liturgy as a prayer. Even among churches that recoil from formal liturgical prayer, ritual phrases become so common that a spoken prayer without them almost seems heretical. The leader of the prayer might ask that God “guide, guard, and direct” or thank God that we in our nation are “free to assemble without fear of molestation” (a petition that, in light of shootings in places of worship in recent years, seems archaic or at least anachronistic). Christians who pray habitually before eating may discover themselves repeating the same short petition word for word before each meal.
Psalm 136 is written as a recitation of God’s faithfulness in history with a congregational response: “His love endures forever.” Several of the Psalms, especially those of praise or lament, might be prayed together as congregational prayer. Even if a worshiper has not experienced the horror underlying the psalm, he or she stands in an assembly where one or more have. We might pray as we read Psalm 59 with other believers, “Deliver me from my enemies, O God; be my fortress against those who are attacking me. Deliver me from from evildoers and save me from those who are after my blood” even if we feel safe and secure now because others in our congregation or in our awareness need that prayer to be prayed now.

My theme in this blog is that prayers in the Bible teach us how to pray and inform us about the nature of both God and humanity. They instruct us regarding the function of lament, petition, confession, and praise in prayer. They provide an example from which we learn how to talk to God. Sometimes, and this is my point in this post, the exact words of a biblical prayer are what you or I or a congregation want and need to pray right now. Jesus cautioned against mindless repetition so we must focus on the purpose of our prayer, the meaning of what we speak, and most of all, on whom we are addressing as we pray. We may pray together, as Christians did in Acts 4:23-31, but we should not pray without understanding, faith, or personal investment in what is being said. When another person prays for you or your group, listen and, when appropriate, affirm with “Amen” or “yes.” Prayer may be practiced ritually, but it should never be offered without reflection.

O Lord, we pray sometimes out of habit. May our prayers always be intentional, and grounded in our faith and love for you. Help us to escape numbness of spirit in the practice of prayer and praise. Invigorate our love for you and for one other. May we remember your actions on behalf of your people as we pray, and may we pause to marvel that we are among those people you have rescued. Lord, when people criticize us or falsely accuse us, protect us. Heal our wounds and restore our ability to love and forgive. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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A Prayer for Courage on an Anniversary of Evil

A prayer I offered in 2012 front of an assembly from several nations in Kabul for Patriot Day (September 11):

O God, Creator of all, Sustainer of life, our Refuge from disaster, we commemorate today an event that awakened a nation and that forced awareness of vulnerability upon a world. As a nation, the United States of America sank to its knees in prayer as we reeled with disbelief. Even so, hundreds of citizens immediately responded, many dying themselves as they struggled to save those trapped within the targets of the terrorists.

Today we pray that you will restore our hope, that you will renew our faith, that you will energize us to defend liberty to speak, to worship and to assemble.

May we have the courage, when faced with evil, to stand firm in freedom, resisting the urge to retreat into authoritarianism and oppression.

Thousands have given their lives striving to counteract the violent destruction of September 11, 2001. Many more have grieved their losses but celebrated their achievement. We thank you, God, for our international friends who stood beside us in our darkest hours and who continue to fight beside us. Bless and protect them. Sustain the people of this land (Afghanistan) as they recover from decades of fighting. Give them a vision of freedom and grant us all the wisdom to help them walk the paths that will lead to its realization.

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Prayer As the Hurricane Approaches

The prayer of Psalm 57 concludes with praise and a statement of determination to keep singing in the midst of threatening turmoil. These words caught my attention this morning after I had been reading about the steady progress of Hurricane Dorian, which one report described as a “monster storm.” Hurricane Dorian will change plans for and cause damage to the property of hundreds of thousands of people this next week. Animals will perish and beaches will suffer erosion. People will be injured; some may die, either as they try to ride out the storm by staying at home or as they attempt to flee from its powerful winds and torrential rain. I lived in coastal Georgia for six years. My work during the last three years of that time in Georgia required me to take several courses from FEMA on disaster preparedness and response. Our team reviewed projections on flooding and other damage that would occur if the area experienced storms of different strengths. I realize just how deadly this storm may become. However, that same study and experience reminds me how true this statement is:

“There’s not room for facts when our minds are occupied by fear” – Hans Rosling, Factfulness, p. 103.

Preparing carefully for adversity reduces uncertainty and fear. Having a “go bag” ready and a planned route for evacuation saves time when it becomes clear the family has to leave. Making sure that property is reinforced and secured before departure will reduce damage. Watching or reading newscasts about the projected path of the storm is helpful so long as we pay attentions to facts and don’t surrender to fear and panic.
How do we prepare spiritually for such an event? “Thoughts and prayers” are only part of our preparation, whether we are in the “cone” of the hurricane’s expected path, or watching from afar. Those who are not in the storm’s path may begin to consider how they will be able to help in its aftermath, remembering that government agencies and local organizations will take the lead in response. They too pray. While some may scoff at prayer’s usefulness, it retains an important role.

“Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by” (Psalm 57:1).

Prayer reminds us of God’s care for us. The psalmist prays for protection, but he also realizes that the storm will pass. Part of us still wants to panic and forecast how dire our circumstances will be. As we pray, we trust that God hears and that he will show mercy. The psalmist prays, but he also sings in the midst of the storm, whether literal or metaphorical, that threatens him:

“My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast. I will sing and make melody” (Psalm 57:7).

Trust and faith form the foundation of the believer’s response to disaster. Loss sometimes is only the preface to a new story. I don’t write those words glibly. Grief and loss have been too much part of my own journey. God’s love has sustained me through the care of concerned friends and compassionate strangers. The beauty that surrounds us in his creation has become even clearer and more treasured.
Last weekend, I preached to a church in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. My wife and I enjoyed the calming scenery and relaxing ocean breezes. We made new friends and relished delicious seafood. In coming days, many of those whom we encountered will respond to the approach of the hurricane. We pray that God will protect them and their community. And I hope that after the storm passes, that each of us will be able to pray along with the writer of Psalm 57,

“I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations, for your steadfast love is great to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth!” (Psalm 57:9-11).

Storms testify to the dynamic power in God’s creation, but remind us also of the unfathomable resources of the being who made them possible. I know my prayers will remember family and friends in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida especially in the next few days. May our love for God, and our care for one another, sustain those who react to this storm in the days ahead.
* Quotations from the Bible are from the English Standard Version.

O God,
When thunder roars and lightning flashes, when winds blow fiercely and hail shatters, we want to cower in fear. We wonder whether we will survive and what costs we will pay if we endure the storm. Give focused clarity of mind and calm resolve to those who feel the brunt of this storm. May they prepare appropriately and flee safely if necessary. We pray for their health and for their security. May we discern in the days ahead how these events make us better as communities and as individuals. May we recognize what reminds us of your power and glory, whether the sheer force of the winds, or the unexpected kindness of a stranger in whom your image resides. Thank you for life, for beauty in your creation, and for the ability to appreciate it. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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Prayer that Pride Will Not Preclude Prayer

In Genesis chapter 4, we read about Cain murdering his brother Abel and Cain’s subsequent punishment. The chapter tells also of Cain’s descendants. Several generations later is born Lamech, whose story becomes the focal point of Cain’s genealogy. Lamech has two wives, who each bear him two children. Lamech’s three sons begin progress in various forms of technology. Jabal is a nomad who herds livestock His brother Jubal is a pioneer musician. Their half brother Tubal is a smith, a forger of metals, so he is called Tubal-cain. Lamech’s sons achieve progress in several areas. Herding makes it easier to obtain meat. The creation of instruments brings joyful recreation of music. Tubalcain creates tools and other devices of metal that make farming, housework, building, and yes, killing easier. The genealogy introduces technology in a way that lets us know it is not inherently evil. Technology can improve the quality of life. It may however be used in a way that hurts not only individuals, but societies.
After learning of the progress of civilization among the descendants of Cain, we hear a disturbing song that Lamech sings to his wives:

23 Lamech said to his wives:
“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. 24If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.”

Lamech, like his ancestor Cain, has killed, and seems to have no remorse whatever. There really is no hint of that here. Lamech has killed and believes he is more worthy of being avenged if someone kills him than Cain was. Does his arrogance come from his sons’ achievements? The context suggests a connection. As civilizations grow and become more technologically advanced, we become more confident in our control over our existence. Pride reeks from Lamech’s song. He has killed and he shouts that revenge for any harm to him will be far, far greater than God’s promise of protection to Cain. Notice: Lamech does not appeal to God. He applauds his achievements and insists on what he considers his rights. Technology changes perspective. We adapt to our new reality and may scoff at the way things used to be.
As Cain’s descendants multiplied, Genesis 4 tells us of another development:

25 And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, “God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.” 26 To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time people began to call upon the name of the LORD. (Genesis 4, English Standard Version).

Even as many take pride in technology, rejoice in violence, and proclaim their independence from God, others begin to call upon him in worship and prayer. The descendants of Cain will not survive; the descendants of Seth, equipped with technology acquired from the family of Cain, but calling upon the Lord will provide the basis for human survival. Lamech shouts that he deserves vengeance 77 times if Cain received it 7. Centuries later, Peter will ask Jesus , “Lord how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say you seven times but seventy times seven.” Rather than multiplied revenge, Jesus calls for exponential forgiveness.
In this unusual and very ancient passage from Genesis, invention of new tools and livelihoods produces violence and lust for revenge, along with a pride that causes people to act as if there is no God. The Bible does not regard technological advances as evil. They are morally neutral, neither good nor evil. How and why people use them makes all the difference. Inventions like mechanical reapers, indoor plumbing, water purification, advances in medical care and transportation have changed human experience for the better. The real danger is when, as the apostle Paul expresses it in Romans 1:25, we “exchange the truth about God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever, amen.” When we begin to allow our technology and our activities to crowd God and truth out of our lives, lies, corruption, and violence become part of our culture. We seek revenge and consider forgiveness weak. Pride precludes prayer. Genesis 4 and the rest of the Bible confront us with two options: Choosing the worship of human technology and achievement or calling upon the name of the Lord.

Lord, teach us to forgive. Open our eyes when we close them rather than admit that our pride has placed our trust in our own inventions rather than in you. Thank you for the privilege of living in this cosmos that you created. May we enjoy and not hoard; may we love and not destroy. Grant us humility so that we may discern when our technology and our insistence on our rights interfere with our relationship with you. Show us paths to reconciliation and unity, so that we may call upon your name together. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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A Prayer While Weeping

This past Sunday, I started crying and for some phrases could only mouth the words of the song “Oh, How He Loves You and Me” during a worship assembly. That song was the lullaby that I sang to my middle child, who later would die at age 27. But this past Sunday, my love and grief for my son drove me to an overwhelming awareness of God’s love for me as I participated in the singing of the song with other Christians. What songs have affected you in such a way?

The song reflects biblical prayers that tell of God’s love that protects and empowers during life’s most threatening moments. The song reminisces about Jesus’s death on the cross as an example of God’s sacrificial love. Psalm 138 gives thanks to God for his steadfast love and faithfulness. The psalmist prays,

“Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life; you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies, and your right hand delivers me. The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands” (Psalm 138:7-8).

When I sang that song when I cradled my infant son in my arms, I prayed that my child would know God’s love and respond to it. When I sang it at his funeral, I realized afresh that God’s love extends beyond the end of this life. As I sing it now, awareness of God’s presence and continuing love strengthens me even while I move to hurdle new challenges. In recent weeks, I have spoken about God’s helping us to navigate the storms of life as I have spoken to churches across the United States about prayers in Psalms 107 and 130. Prayer is an important part of safe passage on that journey, whether silent, verbalized in speech, or sung.

As we speak to our God, we remember that we are not alone. Our prayers, and the prayers of others that we hear or read, remind us that we live for a purpose, and return focus and direction to our lives. Let’s remember when we suffer, to confess our faith in the enduring love of the Lord even as we plead, “Do not forsake the work of your hands.”

  • Biblical quotes are the English Standard Version of the Bible.

 

O Lord God, the paths of our lives are rocky and uneven. At times it seems that we have left a path to set sail on a voyage across uncharted and stormy seas. As we move as in a fog, fear and uncertainty threaten our composure and compete with our faith in your ability to guide us to our destination. Remembering your love helps us to remember that we live with purpose and move towards reunion with those whom we love. Guide us as we travel, that we may see more clearly your light piercing through the darkness. Dispel the fog that depresses our hope. Comfort us when we weep as we pray and sing. Oh, how you love us. May we never forget that truth. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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