Prayer to the God who Reverses and Redefines

Psalm 129 laments persecution and calls down judgment on those who hate the place where God’s people worship. A song sung on the way to worship by Israelite worshipers, the psalm’s words speak of painful assault experienced by the worshiper. Whether the psalm reflects the experience of an individual or the collective memory of the people of God, it records in vivid metaphor the sensations of being physically attacked. The song was led by a precentor who lined out a phrase and then called on his fellow travelers to repeat after him:

“’Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth’ – let Israel now say – ‘Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth, yet they have not prevailed against me’ (Psalm 129:1-2).

The singers continued by singing of attackers scourging them with whips that left wounds like plows leave furrows behind them in a field. As I reflected upon this psalm, I thought of how Jesus was scourged by order of Pilate before his crucifixion (Matthew 26:26). The cords of the whip would have rained down upon his back. The psalm envisions a similar memory of the worshipers. Then however in the next verse of 129, God’s rescue of them is recalled:

“The Lord is righteous; he has cut the cords of the wicked” (Psalm 129:4).

God’s grace reverses inescapable doom. His love redefines impossibility, for as Jesus would say, “With God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). Psalm 129 foreshadows the salvific impact of Christ’s resurrection. With that victory over death, in a very real sense, God through Jesus “cut the cords of the wicked.” He removed the scourge. For those who reject grace, judgment remains, judgment that echoes the rest of Psalm 129:

“May all who hate Zion be put to shame and turned backward! Let them be like the grass on the housetops, which withers before it grows up, with which the reaper does not fill his hand nor the binder of sheaves his arms, nor do those who pass by say, ‘The blessing of the Lord be upon you! We bless you in the name of the LORD!’” (Psalm 129:5-8).

An earlier psalm underlines what grief fills these verses; its singers rejoiced, “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy” as they sang of bringing in the sheaves at harvest when the Lord would restore his people’s fortune (Psalm 126:4-6). In this psalm, they bemoan the fate of those who hate Zion. The enemies of God’s people would be like withered grass and plants that were rejected by the workers conducting the harvest.
Worshipers of God still feel the pain of evil plowers making long their furrows. The anguish after bombings of churches in Sri Lanka this past Sunday underlines that truth. The faithful rejoice in their suffering, however, because God has cut the cords of the persecutor’s whip; he has disabled the opponent’s plow. We keep singing in joy because of the salvation God has accomplished.

  • Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version

Father of mercies, we praise you and thank you for your amazing grace. We feel the sting when skeptics scoff at our faith. We step back in horror when we see scenes of terror and evil that those who oppose your will and hate those who worship you create with their evil schemes. May they realize that they have turned away from receiving your blessing. They have rejected your grace. May they awaken from their spiritual stupor and realize, as did the apostle Paul, that in their zeal to do your will, they have in fact struck out against you and harmed those who seek to serve you and your Messiah. Guide us in paths of truth and empower us to act with love. Grant us the capacity to forgive. Help us to remember your amazing grace and to make it known in our words and actions. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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A Prayer for Those Who Walk in God’s Ways


Actions have consequences. When we read Psalm 128, it seems that productivity and a healthy family life flow from fearing or have reverence for the Lord. The psalmist invokes a blessing on those that fear the Lord and walk in his ways, pronouncing that:

“You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be blessed and it shall be well with you. Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table. Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the LORD” (Psalm 128:2-4).

This psalm is another of a group of psalms believed to have been sung by pilgrims on their way to feasts at the Temple in Jerusalem. The beginning of verse 5 refers to the Temple’s location on Mount Zion: “The Lord bless you from Zion!” With this phrase, the rest of the psalm unfolds not as a blanket guarantee of prosperity, but as a prayer offered with confidence for blessing upon those who walk according to the ways of the Lord.

“May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life! May you see your children’s children! Peace be upon Israel!” (Psalm 128:5b-6)

This benediction, or prayer of blessing, asks that God will grant prosperity and peace to Israel, his people. It is a prayer that God will allow his worshippers to live long enough to see their grandchildren. It is a prayer for healthy relationships within the home, for a wife who is a “fruitful vine” and for children who surround their father’s table as young olive shoots surround the older tree from whose seed they have sprouted. The prayer speaks to God’s people as individuals, as families, and as a nation of worshippers. It is a call to worship, and to live, with reverence for God and with gratitude for the blessings he gives. The prayer also prays for the prosperity of God’s people and for an enduring peace for the place where those people gather to worship the Lord. Implicit within the prayer is awareness that judgment awaits those who scoff at the ways of God and who scorn those who believe.

  • Quotations from the Bible are from the English Standard Version

O Lord, I pray that you will bless us who revere you as God and walk according to your ways. Grant us health and a long life filled with peace. Surround us with loving families who share our faith in you. Thank you for blessings that you give us. Sometimes we stumble, sometimes we grieve under the weight of unexpected loss. Open our eyes to grace and help us to discover paths to recovery when we mourn. May we refrain from making our relationship with you a trivial friendship. May we recognize the doors that you open and the doors that you close. May we know peace as we live for you. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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Thanking God for Shelter, Security, and Legacy

boys graduation

Our prayers include (even if only subconsciously) petitions for shelter, for security, and for a legacy that will endure after our death. We want to be remembered. As Israelite pilgrims traveled to Jerusalem to worship at the temple, they sang songs (the Psalms of Ascent) as they journeyed. Among them was Psalm 127. Although not a prayer, it identifies shelter, security, and legacy as beyond assurance unless the Lord provides them. Our security depends ultimately upon our submission to God’s will.  At our wedding, I promised my wife that I would keep her safe, secure, and on the edge of adventure.  She says that I have overachieved on the adventure part.  I pray that I will do better with the safety and security.

“Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil, for he gives to his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:1-2).

The psalm discourages expending all our energy as if our effort alone earns all our desires. Too many people regret having spent too little time with their family. Too many wish they had taken more time to “see the scenery” during their lives. Work, yes, but work with joy and balance your work with rest and time spent with your family. Remember your dependence upon God – “Unless the Lord builds,” “Unless the LORD watches,” our work is vain or meaningless.
I have fond memories of playing basketball with my sons, cooking with my daughter and older son, discussing the science fiction universe of Frank Herbert’s Dune with my younger son, bowling 227 in a one-on-one match with the older son, and running with my younger son. I cherish even more memories of worshiping with my daughter, her husband and my grandchildren; baptizing my older son; and singing hymns alongside my younger son at Harding University Chapel. I’ve written about my older son’s death here. My other children continue to inspire and amaze me, and I pray that they will continue to grow to be more and more like Christ.

“Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate” (Psalm 127:3-6).

My memories of my children’s youth include several long journeys by automobile in the United States and Europe. We visited the Atomic Energy Museum in Oak Ridge, TN; we rode on a gondola after we arrived in Venice, Italy. We drove through snowstorms in Virginia in December. And one day, as my daughter sat beside me as we traveled, she leaned over and listened intently to a song on the radio before nudging me and saying, “Dad, this song is so you!” Her younger brother told me once that he admired most that I never give up. If that is part of the legacy that I bequeath to them, I will be quite happy that I dreamed the impossible dream and reached for the unreachable star.  I will not be ashamed “at the gate.”
Let’s pray prayers of gratitude for shelter, for security, and for the children God has given us. I also thank God for those who read my posts and prayers on this blog. I started writing “Call for Fire Seminar” six years ago this past week. Thank you for traveling along with me!

  • Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version

O Lord, we hesitate sometimes to relinquish control. We imagine that we can overcome without you. We think that we have earned the housing we enjoy, what sense of safety we may have, and we take pride in achievements we have “earned.” Thank you for loving us and providing for us. We pray that you will continue to give us shelter, that you will protect us on our journey, and that you will guide the children you have given us into abundant lives. Thank you for those children. Thank you for showing us reason to live and dream dreams that only are possible because you are there to make them reality. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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Praying Visions and Bringing in the Sheaves

As a child traveling with my parents to my grandfather’s farm in Middle Tennessee, I eagerly anticipated seeing my grandparents, eating my grandmother’s scrumptious home cooking, and drinking water drawn from their well in the front yard. My eagerness would grow when I spied a mountain in the distance that my younger brother and I called “Granddad’s Mountain.” It wasn’t on his property but was close enough that we knew that we were only minutes away from laughter and love. Earlier this year, when I drove in that county on my way to a family funeral, I suddenly realized as I looked out my window that I was looking at that beloved mountain that had signaled the nearness of my grandparents’ farm. A poignant joy filled my heart and my eyes misted as I reminisced.
In Psalm 126, another of the songs sung by pilgrims on their way to the feasts at the temple in Jerusalem, the singers remember with joy what the Lord had done for their people. They would have gone up to Jerusalem, a city in the midst of mountains, to worship at the temple that itself was atop a smaller hill. Their hearts, much more than mine, would have raced when they first saw familiar peaks rising in the distance and realized that they were near the end of their journey. And so they sang,

“When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter; and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations; ‘The LORD has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad” (Psalm 126:1-3).

As they sang with joyful memory, they also soberly assessed their current situation. While the LORD had blessed them, much had changed. Now they also wept even as they smiled about past blessings and dreamed of the Lord renewing their land again. They sang and they prayed,

“Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negeb! Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy bringing his sheaves with him” (Psalm 126:4-6).

Whether the psalm reflects a time of drought or the return from exile in Babylon, there was concern about the fertility of the land and fear mixed with faith as the worshipers envisioned the future. We too may recall happier days and dream of renewed blessing as we join with others to praise and to pray. Our hearts may be broken as we consider what we see before us. We remember what God has done, and so we to pray with visions of how he will bless in the years ahead.
When we arrived at my grandparents, Granddad would take my brother and me with him as we went out to check on his cattle in the fields; Grandma would let us help her feed the pigs and draw that water from the well, then taste it from a ladle she had dipped in the pail. Afterwards we would go to worship at Bonner Church of Christ, in a building that Granddad and our uncle had built, and we may have sung the final verse of a hymn written by Knowles Shaw, based on the words of Psalm 126,

“Go then even weeping, sowing for the Master, Tho’ the loss sustained our spirit often grieves; When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome, We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”

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

O Father, We reflect on how past generations taught us and provided for us, using blessings you had provided.  We sing with joy as we praise you; we weep as we contemplate terror, poverty, and disease.  We still trust in your care.  We dream of a greater future in which your love shines through our relationships to transform our world into a place where we harvest your blessings with joy.  Calm our fearful hearts. Train our eyes to see the fields ready for harvest, the dreams on the verge of fulfillment. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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Fasting and Social Media

I recently read a panicked message from the communications director of a large church that the senior minister had announced that he was giving up social media for forty days and wanted everyone in the congregation to do the same. The communications director noted that the great majority of the congregation’s in-house communication and a large amount of outreach takes place through the church’s social media pages. The communications director heard the preacher saying that he wanted the church to stop doing evangelism for forty days.
In the weeks before Easter, many people who follow Jesus fast to some degree. Most do not go without food entirely. They will pick a food, chocolate or asparagus for example, and not eat it for that time period. In a comparatively recent development, some, like the preacher mentioned above, decide to stop engaging in a specific behavior they consider negative.
I’m very much aware that the Bible says absolutely nothing about a forty-day period of fasting and prayer before a feast that remembers the resurrection of Jesus. It actually says nothing about such a feast either (The one mention of “Easter” in the King James Version should have been translated “Passover” as it is every other place the word occurs). Fasting, usually connected with prayer, is mentioned in both Old and New Testaments. Acts 13:1-3 informs us that the prophets and teachers of the church in Antioch fasted and prayed before sending Saul and Barnabas out as missionaries. Jesus warned his disciples that when they fasted, they should not do it so that everyone would see their privation and consider them super-spiritual people (Matthew 6:16-18). In Isaiah 58:1-12, God responds through the prophet to worshipers who question why their fasting and prayers seem to have no effect. God rebukes them, saying that they fast, but still quarrel and fight. He makes clear that “spreading sackcloth and ashes” is not what he desires from a fast.
What kind of fast does God choose? The passage in Isaiah 58 continues: “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?” God wants fasting (going without food) to be balanced and accompanied by positive helping behaviors towards other people. My sense is that Christ would not have ordered a fast from social media, but would have counselled his disciples to use Philippians 4:8 as a guideline for their posts, and to use social media to help and encourage rather than to slander and criticize, to evangelize rather than to politicize. He would have said, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, what ever is pure, whatever is lovely…think about these things.” If you are going to fast, use your newly freed-up time to do good. Spend the money you have saved to help others. Enjoy the beauty of the world God has created. Sing with joy to the Lord.

  • Quotations from the Bible are from the American Standard Version.

Lord God, we bow before you, aware sometimes that our fascinations and desires sicken you.  We humble ourselves before and strip away that which distracts.  Give us wisdom to discern what will help us to concentrate more fully on you without hindering the spreading of your message into the world.  Heighten our awareness of our own pride so that we will sense when we do something to be seen or heard by others rather than to please you. Our society and culture changes quickly. We want to discern those changes we should adopt, those we should adapt, and those we should abhor more clearly. Guide us so that our fasts will be pleasing to you. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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A Prayer for God to Surround Us

When a child experiences crisis, being held by a loving parent’s comforting arms restores stability in the midst of chaos. Even as adults, we long for comfort, encouragement, or consolation – when overwhelmed, “I need a hug” leaps to our thoughts if not into our spoken cries. The encircling of comforting arms signals security and safety, love and protection. We have those sensations of safety because we trust the person who holds us, or the circle of friends or family who surround us when our life seems to be crumbling from the weight of illness, job loss, divorce, or the death of someone important to us. We are not alone, and that realization ignites confidence.
As pilgrims journeyed to Jerusalem for the three major feasts of ancient Israelite worship, they traveled across hills until finally they saw the temple, built on Mount Zion, a hill surrounded by taller mountains. Their observation of that geography led them to realize a powerful analogy:

“Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever. As thee mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people, from this time forth and forevermore” (Psalm 125:1-2).

Those mountains provided some physical security to Jerusalem, but also reminded worshipers of their spiritual security provided by a holy God. They realized the threat to political stability mirrored danger to their spiritual security if they did not maintain a right relationship with the Lord their God. As Proverbs 14:34 expresses it, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” The collective morality and ethics of a nation’s citizens determine that nation’s long-term viability as a united political entity. I am not arguing here for civil religion, for infusing patriotism into personal religious faith. I also recognize that some brutal regimes have maintained control of countries for long periods of time and have stretched the reach of their tyranny to engulf other nations. That in fact is one of the fears latent in Psalm 125, that “the scepter of wickedness” might conquer and rule Israel.

The theme of 1st and 2nd Chronicles is that rulers who chose evil over righteousness, who neglected the worship of God and also abused their people, who did not obey the laws of God in regard to speaking truth, preserving life, and protecting the environment, ultimately created the conditions for “the scepter of wickedness” to overwhelm Israel and Judah. Echoes of their fatal errors resound in our era. We protect the eggs of endangered wildlife, but cheer the “right” to choose to kill our own children or ourselves. Corrupt politicians decry truth as “fake news” and practice fraud in elections and financial dealings. Greed, as in Israel, prompts us to overuse our land and remove obstacles to erosion.

“For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest on the land allotted to the righteous, lest the righteous stretch out their hands to do wrong” (Psalm 125:3).

In Psalm 125, confidence in the LORD underlies assurance in continued practice of righteousness in all parts of life. That assurance rests not in legalist conducting of rites, but in the condition of the spiritual heart of the individual. Sometimes people do right things for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes people hurt others badly when it is unnecessary to do so, because they believe they are doing the will of God. The Psalmist prays, and the pilgrims prayed as they sang,

“Do good, O LORD, to those who are good, and to those who are upright in their hears! But those who turn aside to their crooked ways the LORD will lead away with evildoers! Peace be upon Israel!”

The prayer of Psalm 125 recognizes that the security of a people begins in the faithfulness and morality of the individual people among them. As we go to worship, may we examine our hearts when we pray for our nations and for the world in which we live.
•  Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version.

O God who surrounds us with love and protection, we fear collapse of morality when people laugh at the idea of protecting life and scorn the idea of helping those who struggle to provide for themselves. We fear when we wonder if physical safety and security are a mirage, when we live as under threat from imminent danger. We try to maintain a sense of balance in our lives. When a spouse deserts us, or we face financial disaster, when we weaken with age or hear a diagnosis of disease, when parents or other loved ones die, we long to be held and assured that all is right in our world. Thank you for the reminder that the mountains surround Jerusalem, your arms embrace your people. We pray for hearts that will be fertile ground righteousness, that will discern truth, that will show evidence of love for you, for other people, and for the world you have given us. Protect us from the scepter of wickedness. Do good to us. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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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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