A Prayer, a Song, and a Memory in the Night

When life is darkest, what do we pray? When hope dims, what songs do we sing? When opponents taunt, on what memories do we rely? In his prayer to the Lord, the writer of Psalm 119 provides his answers to those questions as he prays in verses 49 through 56.
He prays with anger: “because of the wicked, who forsake your law” (verse 53). He prays with hope: “Your promise gives me life” (verse 52). He prays with confidence: “this blessing has fallen to me, that have kept your precepts” (verse 56). The psalmist trusts God and obeys him.
He sings the laws of the Lord as his songs (verse 54). I remember myself singing a song based on another verse from this song as a child: “O how love I thy law; it is my meditation…” During my darkest hours, songs of faith have sustained me. The songs “It Is Well With My Soul”, “Nearer, Still Nearer,” and “Wayfaring Stranger” especially strengthened me in times when tragedy struck or life unraveled. Songs that contain or reflect the teachings of Scripture etch the reasons for our continuing to believe more deeply onto our soul. They reawaken us to potential and renewal of life.
Ridicule stings. When chanted or texted by esteemed peers, it may draw blood, even if only figuratively. Pain permeates our psyche. The psalmist responds, “The insolent utterly deride me, but I do not turn away from your law.” Even when life seems darkest, his memories of God’s reality and the power of his word bolster his resilience: “I remember your name in the night, O LORD, and keep your law” (verse 55).
We confess our awareness of God’s love, articulated by him in his promises and demonstrated by the incarnation of Jesus, when crises threaten or cripple us. When friends and family disappoint, when our avenues for escaping danger disappear, spiritual songs emerge in our mind to comfort us and remind us of other paths to defeating danger. A disciplined habit of studying the Bible prepares us so that when skeptics question how we persist, we remember God’s word and respond with confident obedience. This psalm reminds us, too, that when we pray, we may call for God to remember and to act.

  • Bible quotes are taken from the English Standard Version.

O Lord, comfort us when we sing your songs while listeners laugh at our faith. Remember your promises. Inspire us with confidence as we remember your acts on behalf of your people throughout history. When it is “night” in our lives, we pray that we will remember your reality and realize that our hope has a firm foundation. May memories of the life of Jesus goad us on to obey as he obeyed so that if opposition be intense, we, like him, may be made perfect in suffering. Draw us nearer that we may sing more confidently and remember more clearly. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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Prayer When Hope Has Been Exhausted

The prophet Hosea, in chapters 8 and 9 of his prophetic book, proclaimed a message of warning and impending doom to his contemporaries in Northern Israel. The ominous nature of what the future held emerged in images like “reaping the whirlwind” and “one like a vulture over the house of the Lord.” Hosea’s messages responded to political and religious corruption in his time. They also reflected how wealth and prosperity can dull a people’s longing for God. The prophet intoned verdicts of horror: “the days of punishment have come,” ”corrupted as in the days of Gibeah” (see Judges 19 if you don’t catch the reference to a most dismal and emotionally-wrenching moment in Israel’s history), and “no birth, no pregnancy, no conception.” The nation that traced its origins to delivery from slavery in Egypt would be surrendered to slavery in Assyria.
The prophet proclaims doom, but his inner tension, and love for his people, emerges in a hastily gasped prayer in Hosea 9:14:

“Give them, O LORD – what will you give? Give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts.”

His culture viewed barren women as cursed by God. Hosea’s prayer foreshadows a time when inability to conceive would seem a blessing; the children who had not been born would not suffer the horrors inflicted by Assyria. Times of trouble and suffering can transform our values and our desires. In prosperous times, we pray glibly our thanks for food and shelter. When we lose everything, we pray desperately for bread and water, we cry out our petition for a safe place to sleep.
Have you begun a prayer, then stopped when you realized that you had no words to capture what was needed or possible? That was Hosea’s realization as he halted this prayer, then concluded with a petition that a curse would be made a blessing.

  • Bible quotes are taken from the English Standard Version.

O God who warns of catastrophe while we blunder ahead naively, open our eyes and renew our situational awareness. Spare us the horrors Israel witnessed at Gibeah, and later at Bethel. Turn our hearts to trust in you; spur us in love to obey before it is too late. Hear our prayer while we still can pray with hope in Jesus’ name, amen.

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A Prayer to the God who Distracts

Biblical writers employed metaphors and similes to describe the God whom no one has seen. We know well passages that envision God as Father, Lion, Creator, Shepherd, Warrior, and Refuge. In recent decades, increasing attention has been paid to passages that use feminine imagery (Mother, for example) to describe God and his care for humanity. The prophet Hosea introduces another metaphor for God that had escaped my attention until recently: Moth.

Moth? That description almost sounds blasphemous. My memories of moths involve batting them away as they flitted around porch lights and threatened to follow me into a building. They distracted me on those occasions, and that is just the reason Hosea used the moth to illustrate God’s concern for his wayward people. Note that Hosea did not say that God is a moth or that moths are divine beings. He used the way that moths distract to describe a way that God demonstrates his love. The prophet wrote,

“The princes of Judah have become like those who move the landmark; upon them I will pour out my wrath like water. Ephraim is oppressed, crushed in judgment, because he was determined to go after filth. But I am like a moth to Ephraim, and like dry rot to the house of Judah” (Hosea 5:10-12).

Judah and its leaders had engaged in deceptive practices that abused the rights of the poor. Israel (Ephraim) was focused on following pagan deities and other human concepts. Israel’s path in particular led them to focus on filth rather than the beauty of God and his will for his Creation. God says through Hosea that he has become a moth to Israel; the Lord distracts his people from the filth they seek.

That imagery reminded me of other places where God or his messenger distracts: the Angel of the Lord blocking the path of Balaam and his donkey (Numbers 22:22-35), the prophet Micaiah warning Kings Ahab and Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 18), and Mordecai calling Esther away from a choice of not-getting-involved. In the New Testament, Paul advises Christians,

“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 1:13).

Could God’s providing the way of escape be another instance of God being like a moth, distracting us from temptation towards a better way? At times in my own life, temptations to choose a path that might have harmed me or to engage in wrong activities have been interrupted by distractions that made it easier to turn away from bad decisions or questionable relationships. Sometimes, I brushed aside those distractions as if they were moths flying near my door. More often, the distraction reminded me of my calling to follow Jesus and prompted me to change my course of action. A few verses later, Hosea writes, “Come, let us return to the LORD, for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up” (Hosea 6:1). When God distracts, he moves us towards turning to the path he wants us to walk. A Psalmist prayed,

“Teach me good judgment and knowledge, for I believe in your commandments. Before I was afflicted, I went astray, but now I keep your word” (Psalm 119:66-67).

God acts like a moth, Hosea said, to turn his people away from focus on filth. He distracts us from evil, and directs us to a better way. We pray that God will distract us from evil and that he will cause us to remember his word and his intent for our lives that it reveals.

  • Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.

O God who distracts, we so often think we know best what we should do. We blunder down paths that would lead to our destruction if people, or obstacles of some sort, did not jar us from our reverie of rebellion and remind us of your will. Thank you for loving us enough to distract us when we stray from the path so that we may return to the course that leads to you. The people of northern Israel ignored your divine distractions until it was too late. We pray that we may heed your warnings and turn while we still have time. May we focus on your Son, our Lord Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, in whose name we pray, Amen.

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A Prayer When We Are Running Away from God

Hosea’s wife did not respond to his love. She left him for a life of prostitution. But then as Hosea chapter 3 begins, God calls Hosea to go love his wife as God loves his people. When Hosea finally found his wife, she had sunk as low as she could go. She was being sold in the slave market, where quite literally, she would be stripped naked as she was offered for sale. Imagine her surprise as the husband whose love she had spurned, whose children she had abandoned, stepped forward to purchase her and to take her home with him. Legally, he could have demanded that she be stoned to death. But in his love, he kept pursuing her, seeking her redemption, even when she rejected and humiliated him.

Hosea, the husband but also the prophet, told Israel that his love for his wife was not unique. God loves his people with the same fierceness and protectiveness as Hosea had for Gomer. The story of Hosea and Gomer was the story of God and Israel. Hosea says in Hosea 3:4-5, “the children of Israel shall return and seek the LORD their God, and David their king, and they shall come in fear to the LORD and to his goodness in the latter days.” As Hosea foreshadowed at the end of chapter two, God would take them out of the valley of trouble and open the door of hope.

The story of Hosea’s relationship with his wife has been called “the second greatest story ever told.” The greatest story ever told is much like Hosea’s: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The relationship of Hosea and his wife Gomer is like that between Christ and his Church.

The Apostle Peter used words that echo Hosea when he wrote to Christians, “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:10). When Paul calls the church “the bride of Christ” in Eph. 5, he underlines the analogy. Like Hosea’s wife and like Israel, we must be faithful to the one who really provides for us. We sometimes attribute our blessings to other sources: luck, hard work, shrewd investing. But even when we push God out of our lives, when we invest our time, our money, and our emotion in focusing on other loves, he pursues us with his love. How is our relationship with God? How should God respond to our behavior? Have we committed ourselves fully to serving God or is his provision something we take for granted? Is being part of God’s people, Christ’s church and bride, who we are or are we confused about our spiritual identity? Are we running away from God as Hosea’s wife did from him? Do we question whether we are worthy of his love? We run but God still seeks us. He seeks to love, to forgive, to renew.

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

O God, we push you away. We deny your love with our actions if not with our words. We struggle first with the idea that we need forgiveness, then with how you could forgive such incorrigible rebels. We have trouble trusting. Your relentless pursuit sometimes seems like harassment, or even stalking. Yet your kindness and your forgiving spirit, your fierce protection of us reveal to us that you are not our enemy. Help us to remember. Help us to recognize those who seek to tear us away from you.  Hold us in the embrace of your love. Remind us that we are your people and that you love us. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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A Prayer When Afraid

Did you ever notice that the words “Don’t be afraid” are spoken when you are most afraid? In Mark 4, a storm arises while Jesus and his disciples are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. His disciples are terrified, but Jesus had been taking a nap and has continued to sleep despite the storm. They awaken him, he calms the storm and asks them, “Why were you so afraid? Have you no faith?”
Centuries earlier, another man prayed in fear. An enemy army had besieged, then destroyed his city. He has lost all and has witnessed atrocities that often accompany war. He writes and prays,

“Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the LORD! Let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven: ‘We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven. You have wrapped yourself with anger and pursued us, killing without pity; you have wrapped yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can pass through. You have made us like scum and garbage among the peoples” (Lamentations 3:40-45)

He (The writer may be the prophet Jeremiah) laments his people’s situation and confesses sin. His vividly worded prayer conveys his despair: God has turned from protector into pitiless pursuer. God has ignored their prayers. “No prayer can pass through” – Those words drip with dread. God, our refuge, has barred his gates and denied entry.
He cries in his anguish, “Do not close your ear to my cry for help!” The tone changes as he prays, “you came near when I called on you; you said, ‘Do not fear!’” (Lamentations 3:55-57) Foreshadowing the incident on the Sea of Galilee, God replies, “Don’t be afraid.”
The prayer continues with relief-laced rejoicing:

“You have taken up my cause, O Lord; you have redeemed my life. You have seen all the wrong done to me; judge my cause.” (Lamentations 3:58-59)

God has stilled the storm, although the scars of fear remain.
I have suffered unexpected loss several times during my life: deaths of loved ones, loss of employment, and more. I know the feeling expressed by the prophet when he prayed “no prayer can pass through.” It seemed as if God refused to hear. Even now, when things don’t go as expected, shadows of dread return. I hear, when I pause to listen, Jesus saying to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Have you no faith?’ I hear God saying to the prophet, “Do not fear!” I hear in my mind those words being spoken to me. Sometimes it’s hard to listen. Background noise threatens to drown out the calming words of assurance. I also hear the words of another prophet to his rightfully fearful son, “The Lord will provide.” When I hear those words, my faith rebounds. Although my storm may not yet be over, I can go forward because the Lord has taken up my cause.

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Prayer While the Snow Falls

The winds are roaring outside and the snow is falling. Forecasts call for the snow to continue for the next five hours with the winds reaching forty-five miles per hour. As I watch the storm build, I reflect on verses from Psalm 16 that remind me of the good we receive from the Lord. Even in the darkest hours, when job prospects may be sparse and relationships may be hazardous places to venture, he provides hope and reveals the path to refuge and life. The apostle Peter quoted this Psalm in his sermon on that first Pentecost after Christ arose and ascended back to heaven. He directed his hearers to this verse of prayer as he spoke of the resurrection of Jesus:

Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.

While Peter focuses on the promise of resurrection, the psalmist rejoices in God’s promise of refuge and life for his worshippers. He prays for salvation from the Lord, and rejoices in the fellowship he enjoys with other followers of God:

Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the LORD, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight.

I shudder often, painfully aware of my ineptness in communicating to others and of my failure to hear fully their hurt. It is too easy to give in to the temptation to provide easy, pat answers that seem so certain to me, but appear to confuse or even anger others. I don’t know their pain as they do not know my experience or my own pain. I can only guess and lean heavily upon the source of my direction. I value highly time with other believers. I can only hope that they realize how much they encourage me with their songs, their smiles, and most of all with their presence. With the psalmist,

I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.

The world outside my window turns progressively snowier as I write. The temperature will drop steadily through the rest of the day. My schedule for today has been altered dramatically. There are forces in our world that we cannot ignore, times when we must halt, when we must listen, and when we must worship the God whom we thank when we realize and pray:

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

• Bible quotations are from Psalm 16 in the English Standard Version.

O Creator of all the seasons, As the snow falls, it obscures our roads. We cannot discern as well what path is safest. Our emotions, particularly our fear, act like snow to hide our paths. Clear our paths that we may choose wisely and well.  Remove the burdens of our hearts and free our lips to sing your praise as we rejoice in your presence and the company of fellow believers. Forgive our slowness to learn and motivate us more strongly to listen quietly, to speak softly, and to forgive. In Jesus’ name, amen

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Thanksgiving to a Loving Creator

“Great are the works of the Lord, Psalm 111 says, “studied by all who delight in him. Full of splendor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. He has caused his wondrous works to be remembered; the LORD is gracious and merciful.” The apostle Paul notes that the world testifies to the glory of its Creator. When we slow down and observe the natural beauty surrounding us, we begin to understand why we sing songs like How Great Thou Are and Praise the Lord, ye heavens adore him.” When I saw multitudes of stars in a cloudless sky as I stood in a dark Mojave desert, or I witnessed the majesty of the ocean’s crashing waves during a storm in Hawaii, or I enjoyed the changing of leaves in the fall or the glistening of ice on barren tree limbs during the past two weeks, I have realized the grandeur and the beauty of God’s creation. You have your own memories of beauty that captured your imagination and fired your faith in God, that perhaps drove you to your knees in humbled prayer as you acknowledged the incomprehensible power and frightening intelligence of a being that could create this universe. The words of Genesis, Psalms, and the prophets in the Bible reflect on God’s creative process. They remind us that God imagined then created this beauty. The stars, the moon, the sun, the ocean are not gods to worship. They are created by the God that we assembled here today to thank and to praise.

Earlier this year, I preached from Exodus 34, where in verses 6-7 God describes himself to Moses as “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty… Those words of God foreshadow the praise of Psalm 111. God loves, and because he loves he provides. Today, many will sit down to feast upon turkey, roast beef, sweet potatoes, and green bean casserole, surrounded by family and friends. Others may eat alone, perhaps feeling abandoned or mourning the absence of loved ones. I pray that they will realize God’s love for them on this day.

Psalm 111 reminds us of the source of our food. It reminds us that God keeps his promises. His works are dependable. We count on the sun rising in the east and the tides rolling in. We look to certain parts of the sky expecting to see specific groups of stars. After we have lived somewhere for a time, we gain sense of when one season will segue into the next. The Psalmist testifies, “The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy; they are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.” We thank God because we live in a world that despite crazy weather at times, functions in an orderly fashion.

I pray that you will know joy and love on this day! Happy Thanksgiving!

O Immortal Creator, your Cosmos astonishes us with its magnitude and beauty. Imagining a force, a being, who could fashion such challenges, yet sparks faith and hope. We thank you for life, and for a world that has predictability. Even when fires and storms destroy, life surges back in the aftermath. We marvel that your power is accompanied by love and we rejoice that we have received the benefits of that love. We pray that you will bless the lonely and bring hope for the poor on this day. Thank you for the opportunity to celebrate Thanksgiving. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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