Archive | January 2023

The God Who Takes a Stand

My New Revised Standard Bible titles Psalm 76, “Israel’s God—Judge of All the Earth,” so as we read Psalm 76 we know that we will be looking at the subject of God’s judgment.  It is particularly verses 7-9 that focus on God as the Judge of the earth: “But you indeed are awesome!  Who can stand before you when once your anger is roused?  From the heavens you uttered judgement; the earth feared and was still when God rose up to establish judgement, to save all the oppressed of the earth.”

The subject of God’s judgment is difficult for many Christians who find much comfort in the mercy of Christ.  Yet we need to take a careful look at God’s judgment as well.

Derek Kidner, one of the foremost scholars of the Hebrew Scriptures, comments on verse 9, “Note the purpose of judgment, which is to save those who commit their cause to God.  This is the chief aspect of justice in the Psalms, where the plight of those who either cannot or will not hit back at the ruthless is a  constant concern.”

Sadly, we often mix up God’s judgment with our own tendency to become judgmental.  We are often judgmental toward others on the basis of our prejudices, our fears, and our grudges.  We want to judge others because they have hurt us or because we are afraid of them.  But God’s judgment is different.  God’s judgment flows out of God’s concern for ‘the plight of those who either cannot or will not hit back at the ruthless.”  God’s judgment is for the purpose of saving those who are in need.

Leonardo da Vinci asserted, “He who does not punish evil commands it to be done.”  Since God does not want evil to flourish in our world, God takes a stand against it; God judges evil and evil-doers.

We should not become judgmental, but we must join with God in caring about those who are persecuted or oppressed.  We must join with God in taking a stand against evil and for the sake of helping those who are struggling.

Born in 1928, in the town of Sighet—now part of Romania—Elie Wiesel and his family were deported to Nazi concentration and extermination camps, where his parents and little sister perished.  Elie and two older sisters survived.  In 1986, Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for a lifetime of writing and lecturing and speaking out on behalf of fellow Jews and others who have suffered persecution and the threat of death because of their religion, race or national origin.  He argued, “We must take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.  Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.  Sometimes we must interfere.  When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.  Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.”

Make us channels of your peace, God.  Where there’s despair in life, let us bring hope; where there is darkness, only light; and where there’s sadness, ever joy.

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The River of Forgiveness

Some things have been thought to be impossible:

In 1863, while attempting to sell stock in the telephone, Joshua Cockersmith was arrested and charged with trying to extort funds.  The Baltimore County Advocate reported, “Well-informed people know that it is absolutely impossible to transmit the human voice over wires.”

In 1870, Bishop Wright stated, “Man has invented everything that can be invented.  He has done all he can do.  When asked specifically about the possibility of people learning to fly, he countered, “Don’t you know that flight is reserved for angels?”  Thirty three years later, his own sons, Orville and Wilbur Wright, successfully launched their plane off the ground at Kitty Hawk.

In 1889, The Literary Digest reported on the automobile: “The ordinary ‘horseless carriage’ is at present a luxury for the wealthy; and although its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle.”

In 1926, Lee De Forest, who is considered by many to be the “Father of the Radio,” stated, “While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially I consider it an impossibility, a development of which we need waste little time dreaming.”

Something else that is often considered to be an impossibility is forgiveness.  Elizabeth O’Conner writes, “Despite a hundred sermons on forgiveness, we do not forgive easily, nor find ourselves easily forgiven.  Forgiveness, we discover, is always harder than the sermons make it out to be.”

Because we struggle so much with forgiveness, Jesus instructs us to pray, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

There are two parts to this—both of which we struggle with: the forgiveness we receive and the forgiveness we give to others.

The forgiveness we receive: We cannot enjoy God’s peace unless we accept Christ’s forgiveness.  While reflecting on the struggle the “Prodigal Son” had in accepting the mercy of the Father, Henri Nouwen commented, “One of the greatest challenges of the spiritual life is to receive God’s forgiveness.  There is something in us humans that keeps us clinging to our sins and prevents us from letting God erase our past and offer us a completely new beginning.  Sometimes it even seems as though I want to prove to God that my darkness is too great to overcome.  While God wants to restore me to the full dignity of sonship, I keep insisting that I will settle for being a hired servant.”  (The Return of the Prodigal Son, p. 53)

In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky writes, “There is no sin, and there can be no sin on all the earth, which the Lord will not forgive to the truly repentant!  Man cannot commit a sin so great as to exhaust the infinite love of God.  Can there be a sin which could exceed the love of God?”

C.S. Lewis summarizes, “I think that if God forgives us we must forgive ourselves.  Otherwise it is almost like setting up ourselves as a higher tribunal than Him.” 

Christ died to forgive us, and we do well to trust that what he did on the cross is sufficient to cover all of our sins.

The forgiveness we give: Commenting on the instruction Jesus gave to us to pray, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors,” Charles Williams remarks, “No word in English carries a greater possibility of terror than the little word ‘as’ in that clause.”

The story is told of Robert Bruce fleeing from English soldiers and their hunting dogs.  He was rescued from capture by reaching a river in the Scottish Borders that carried away his scent.  Christ’s forgiveness is like that river: it carries away the scent of our guilt.  But it only works when we enter the river.  For me not to forgive someone else would be like standing on the bank of the river of forgiveness to block the person’s entrance to the river that would wash away their guilt.  But so long as I am standing on the bank of the river to block their way, I am not in the river of forgiveness.  The only way that I can enjoy forgiveness is to step off the bank and into the river, and when I am in the river I am no longer in position to block their way to forgiveness.  If I want to enjoy forgiveness I must make room for others to enter forgiveness as well.

The Miracle of Gratitude

Psalm 75 opens with words of gratitude: “We give thanks to you, O God; we give thanks; your name is near. People tell of your wondrous deeds.”

You have to wonder why so many psalms express thanksgiving. Is it because psalmists tend to be grateful people? Or is it because God wants us to learn how valuable gratitude is to our souls? Or is it a combination of the two?

Robert Holden asserts, “The miracle of gratitude is that it shifts your perception to such an extent that it changes the world you see.” What I take from this is that when we practice gratitude, we begin to see the world differently, which, in turn, enables us to find more to be grateful for. The practice of gratitude leads to more gratitude. Perhaps psalmists tend to be grateful people because they are actively engaged in the discipline of gratitude. Perhaps we become more grateful people as we practice gratitude more often.

And there are good reasons for us to practice gratitude. Dr. Robert Emmons states, “The practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life. It can lower blood pressure, improve immune function and facilitate more efficient sleep. Gratitude reduces lifetime risk for depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders, and is a key resiliency factor in the prevention of suicide.” Gratitude contributes to our physical and emotional health.

Elie Wiesel probes even deeper. He proposes, “When a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity.” In other words, gratitude is essential for becoming all that we can be. God wants to bring us into the fullness of living, so God continually invites us to practice gratitude.

Thornton Wilder puts it this way: “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” It is gratitude that makes us conscious of our treasures. Therefore, we can say that it is gratitude that enables us to come alive.

No wonder so many psalms express gratitude.

“Give us this day our daily bread”

Three things come to my mind when I pray, “Give us this day our daily bread”:

1: What I am praying for is a daily matter.  This prayer anticipates that I will come back to God day after day with the same request.

The Greek word translated here as “daily,” epiousios, is not found anywhere in classical Greek literature.  For centuries, Biblical scholars suggested that Matthew or Luke made up the word and/or that it had deep spiritual significance.  In 1947, however, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were first being studied, a seemingly insignificant fragment of papyrus was found among the ‘more important’ scrolls.  This fragment of papyrus was simply a portion of a shopping list.  On that shopping list was found the word epiousios.  The word was used to refer to certain products that needed to be bought on a daily basis.  In days prior to refrigeration, items such as milk, eggs and meat had to be purchased on the day they were to be used.  Those were the kinds of items listed under the word epiousios—the kinds of things that needed to be bought on a day-by-day basis.

This prayer helps me to recognize that I do well to come before God every day—and throughout the day—asking God to meet the needs that I have each day and each moment.

2: What I am praying for are the most basic matters.  This prayer helps me to know that if I can talk to God about something as menial as bread, then I can talk to God about anything.

Sometimes we get the impression that God is so busy taking care of the important things in the world that he doesn’t have time to care about the ‘little’ things in our lives.  But Peter writes in 1 Peter 5:7, “Cast all your cares on him because he cares for you.”  Peter came to that conviction after spending day after day with Jesus for several years, watching Jesus’ concern for the daily cares of others.  When wine ran out at a wedding and Jesus’ mother worried over the embarrassment of the groom, Peter saw Jesus meet the need by turning water into wine.  When a crowd of 5000 people grew hungry after listening to Jesus all day, Peter saw Jesus meet their need by turning a few loaves of bread and some fish into a banquet for the multitude.  When the disciples sat down at the “Last Supper,” sweaty and dirty, Peter saw Jesus meet their needs by washing their feet.  Day in and day out, Peter had seen the evidence that God “cares for you.”

This prayer helps me to recognize that nothing is too big for God to handle or too small for God to care about. 

3: What I am praying is inclusive; I am not praying merely for me to get my daily bread, I am praying for us to get our daily bread. 

Leonardo Boff argues, “God does not hear the prayer that asks only for ‘my’ daily bread.’  An anonymous writer comments, “You cannot pray the Lord’s Prayer and even once say ‘I.’ You cannot pray the Lord’s Prayer and even once say ‘My.’  Nor can you pray the Lord’s Prayer and not pray for one another.  And when you ask for daily bread, you must include your brother.  For others are included in each and every plea.  From the beginning to the end of it, it does not once say ‘Me.’”

In his book The Dangerous Act of Worship, Mark Labberton writes, “Imagine how shocking it would be if the foremost reputation of the church was ‘the people who endlessly love’ or ‘the people who sacrificially put others first’ or ‘the ones who always remember the poor and the forgotten.’”

This prayer helps me to recognize that we are dealing with a God who cares for the whole world and who continually calls us to join him in caring for others as well. 

A Psalm for Desert-Like People

Psalm 74 is titled, “Plea for Help in Time of National Humiliation.”  It is a desert-like psalm—a psalm of desert-like troubles.  It is a psalm of barrenness and of inhospitable conditions.  Verse 3 sums up the problem well: “Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins; the enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary.”  Verse 19 speaks of the soul of God’s dove (God’s beloved people) being delivered “to the wild animals.” 

How can a people survive in a desert?  How can a people survive amidst desert-like conditions? 

Ray Vander Laan writes, “Community is essential in the desert.  Survival in the desert literally demands that its people care for one another.  Even today, Bedouin will say that the unbelievable commitment to hospitality expressed among desert tribes exists in part because as they travel through the barren wilderness they need to depend on others for food, shelter, and especially water.  So the code of hospitality is very strong.

“In the desert, guests and complete strangers are welcomed and receive the best food and water a family has.  Families will serve the last bit of flour they have or defend a guest in their tent with their lives—even if they just met that guest.  This code of hospitality is quite foreign to many people in the Western world where privacy, competition, and a spirit of self-sufficiency prevail.

“Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that God chose the desert to be the place where he would prepare his people to be his community of priests who would reveal him to the world.  He knew that at times his people would be in the desert, but that far more often they would suffer the intense pain and suffering of life’s desert experiences.  He would provide manna, shade, and water so that his people would not only survive their desert experiences but as a community—numerous as the sand of the seashore—would share what God had provided them with other people who find themselves in the desert.”

Because this psalm is a desert-like psalm—a psalm of desert-like troubles—the psalm puts an emphasis on community.  It begins with a plea for God’s protection and provision for the community of Israel: “O God, why do you cast us off forever?  Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?  Remember your congregation, which you acquired long ago, which you redeemed to be the tribe of your heritage.  Remember Mount Zion where you came to dwell.” 

And in verses 20-21 (near the end of the psalm), the psalmist pleads for the most vulnerable in the nation: “Have regard for your covenant, for the dark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence.  Do not let the downtrodden be put to shame; let the poor and needy praise your name.”

The South African concept of Ubuntu shines forth in Psalm 74.  Ubuntu, a Nguni Bantu term meaning “humanity,” is often translated as “I am because we are.”  In a preface to Richard Stengel’s Mandela’s Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage, Nelson Mandela describes ubuntu as “the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; that if we are to accomplish anything in this world, it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievements of others.”

May Psalm 74 remind us that we are desert-like people—people who are often facing desert-like circumstances along with others who are facing desert-like circumstances.  And may Psalm 74 remind us to keep our hearts attuned to the whole community, practicing ubuntu care for one another, including the most vulnerable among us.

“Your Kingdom Come & Your Will Be Done”

Reflecting on the “Lord’s Prayer,” Anne Kiemel wrote, “I cannot say Thy kingdom come, if I am unwilling to give up my own sovereignty and accept the righteous reign of God.  I cannot say Thy will be done, if I am unwilling or resentful of having it in my life.  I cannot say on earth as it is in heaven, unless I am truly ready to give myself to God’s service here and now.”

To ask for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done is to ask for God’s ways to be lived out in our lives.  Lisa Lewolt suggests that “to pray Thy kingdom come means to invite God’s will into the world and to be open to what God wants for your life.”

Actually, this request in the “Lord’s Prayer” is summed up well in the first three steps of the Twelve Step Program: “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol (or to whatever it is that applies to me or to you)—that our lives had become unmanageable.  We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.  We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.”

When we ask for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done, we acknowledge that God knows how to run this world better than we do, and he knows how to run our lives better than we do.  When we ask for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done, we ask God to take the lead, and we commit ourselves to following his lead.  When we ask for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done, we believe that God’s lead in our lives will restore us to sanity and will lead us to deepest joy and peace and contentment. 

David Roper writes, “I read a story about a pastor of a small, rural church in Scotland.  He had been forced out by his elders, who claimed they saw no fruit from his ministry…. During the time the pastor served, there had been no conversions and no baptisms.  But he did recall one positive response to his preaching.  When the offering plate was passed during a service, a young boy placed the plate on the floor, stood up, and stepped into it.  When asked to explain, he replied that he had been deeply touched by the minister’s life, and while he had no money to give, he wanted to give himself wholly to God.” 

That is, in essence, what we are doing when we pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  It is as if we are stepping into the offering plate and declaring, “I give myself to God.  It is as if we are saying to God, “Take the lead in my life, and do with me and through me what you choose to do.” 

Misplaced Envy

Psalm 73 grapples with a universal question: Why is it that the wicked seem to prosper in this world? 

The psalmist writes (in verses 3-10), “For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked.  For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek.  They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people.  Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment.  Their eyes swell out with fatness; their hearts overflow with follies.  They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression.  They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth.  Therefore the people turn and praise them, and find no fault in them.”

Why is it that good people often suffer and bad people get rich? 

Yet Derek Kidner remarks, “The psalm will show the relative unimportance of circumstances in comparison with attitudes, which may be either soured by self-interest (verses 3 & 13) or set free by love (verse 25)….The light break in as he turns to God…and to Him as an object not of speculation but of worship.” 

When we turn to God in worship, our perspective changes.  Though we might not enjoy the earthly prosperity of the wicked, we begin to take stock of what truly matters and of the riches we have in God for eternity.  As the psalmist reflects on his initial envy of the prosperous wicked in light now of his relationship with God, he declares (in verses 22-28), “I was stupid and ignorant; I was like a brute beast toward you.  Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.  You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me with honor.  Whom have I in heaven but you?  and there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.  Indeed, those who are far from you will perish; you put an end to those who are false to you.  But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, to tell of all your works.”

The message of Psalm 73 is summed up well in a story from the Middle East about a king who was very wealthy by worldly standards, but whose his material wealth was not enough.  The king longed for spiritual contentment as well.  One night the king was roused from a deep sleep by a loud stamping and stomping on his roof.  Alarmed, he shouted, “Who’s there?”

A voice from the roof answered, “A friend.  I’ve lost my camel.”

Perturbed by such stupidity, the king shouted back, “You fool!  Why are you looking for a camel on my roof?”

The voice from the roof answered, “You fool!  Why are you looking for God’s contentment in silk clothing and lying on a golden bed?”

“Hallowed be Thy Name”

When children begin to learn the “Lord’s Prayer,” they often struggle with the words:

  • Instead of “Our Father who art in heaven,” at least one child has turned it into, “Our Father who does art in heaven.”
  • “Hallowed be Thy name” has been mistaken as “Howard be Thy name” or as “Harold be Thy name.”  One child thought it was, “Our Father who art in heaven, how’d ya know my name?”
  • “Give us this day our daily bread” has been turned into “Give us this day our gravy and bread,” and “Give us this day our jelly bread.”  One child, with more expensive tastes, thought it was, “Give us this steak and daily bread.”
  • “Forgive us our trespasses” was thought to be, “Forgive us our mattresses.”
  • One child thought “Lead us not into temptation” was a statement about a particular family member: “Aunt Leda’s not into temptation.”  Another child took it as a prayer for his little sister to get into trouble: “And lead a snot into temptation.”
  • One child, who seems to have had a fear of large birds, thought “Deliver us from evil” was “Deliver us from eagles.” 

For most of us, though, the problem is not with getting the words wrong but of understanding the meaning and significance of what we pray.  What does it mean for us when we pray, “Hallowed be Thy name”?

The Greek word used here is hagiazo, which means to treat something as holy or to set something apart as sacred unto God.  Whatever is designated as holy is no longer to be treated in a common way but is to be treated with special honor.  For example, the Jewish law considered the Sabbath day as holy—as a day that was set apart as different from all other days of the week.  Jewish people were instructed to work for six days, but the seventh day was set apart as a different kind of day.  It was a day to worship God and to rest and to connect with one’s family and friends.  The Sabbath was to be a day on which one’s body could rest and one’s soul could be refreshed.

Perhaps the best example of “hallowing” something is marriage.  When we get married, we set apart one person as different from all other people in our lives.  We may have acquaintances in our lives.  We may have other friends.  But when we get married, we set apart our spouse as the one person with whom we will be sexually intimate, as the one person we will come home to at the end of each day, as the one person we will be with and who will be with us all the days of our lives, and as the one person with whom we will go through “hell and high water.” 

This is the essence of what it means to “hallow” something.  When we pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Thy name,” we are asking for help in honoring God with supreme importance in our lives. 

Unfortunately, we have a tendency to treat God as though God is ordinary—just one of the things to make time for.  We have to work; we have to wash the dishes; we have to take the dog for a walk; we have to pay bills.  If there is any time left, I might talk to God.  Oh, but the television show I wanted to watch is coming on soon.  I guess I don’t have any time for God again. 

No!  When we pray, “Hallowed be your name,” we are asking God to help us to set God apart as different than and as more important than all the other stuff in our lives. 

We do the same thing with our money.  We have to pay our electric bill, the cable bill, and our housing expenses.  We have to get the car washed.  We have to buy some brownies for the local fundraiser.  We have to buy the new outfit we like.  If there is anything left over we may give a little bit to God.

No!  When we pray, “Hallowed be your name,” we are asking God to help us to honor God as priority over other stuff in our lives.

The same principle holds true when it comes to moral issues.  Advertisements invite me to indulge in my wants.  Television shows entice me to indulge in my wants.  Society in general encourages me to indulge in my wants.  Even my feelings and my desires tell me to indulge in my wants.

No!  When we pray, “Hallowed be your name,” we are asking God to help us to set God apart as more important than all the other voices that tell me to do what I want to do.

When we pray, “Hallowed be your name,” we are not saying sweet religious words; we are asking God to change the entire orientation of our lives so as to value God above everything else.  If we are not serious about this, we should not pray these words.