Tag Archives: israel

How to grow your love for God, part 3 (dealing with our fears)

17 Oct
Photo by Jeremy Perkins on Unsplash

What do you fear?  Even if you are the kind of person who is not afraid of hardly anything, do you have concerns?  What bothers you?  Maybe your personality really struggles with fears.  I’ve talked in a previous post about my own struggles with anxiety. I’ve come to realize I have triggers: health and financial concerns, home repairs, and difficult relational situations can all intensify my struggle with fear and anxiety.  I’ve learned that it can be hard to love God in the midst of fear.  As we continue this series studying Deuteronomy 11, we’ve seen in the previous two posts that Moses is encouraging the people to grow their love for God.  If you haven’t read them, you might consider doing so, as they set the context for what we are going to study in this post.  Moses addresses a significant concern about loving God in the midst of fear. 

It seems that Deuteronomy 11 has 7 sections, and in the first three, Moses has been very positive.  But that positive tone changes in Section 4.  Look at verses 16-17.

The thing he wants them to do? In verse 16, he says, “do not to turn away from God or worship other gods.”  Warning! Red flag.

And why does he not want them to turn away from God? Moses is pretty clear.  In verse 17, he warns them, “then God will be angry and will not send rain, and you will not have food, and worse, you will perish from the Land.”

Yikes. Things just got negative.  But notice that this is the shortest section.  Moses doesn’t dwell on it.  He emphasizes the blessings, the positives, as he was a good leader like that.  No scare tactics here.  No heaping guilt.  But he does have to make them aware of the truth.  They need to be informed of what will happen if they turn away.  If they turn away from God, it will be disastrous for them.  This is some needed accountability.

But Moses doesn’t hammer on this.  Instead, he wants them to love and obey God, so he fills their hearts and minds with the many good reasons for following God’s way.  Thus, quickly, he returns to another positive section.

The fifth section is found in verses 18-21.

What is the thing he wants them to do? In verse 18, he has some practical advice about the commands of God.  He says, “fix these words in your hearts and minds.”

Why does he want them to do this?  He explains his reasoning in verses 19-21, “Teach them to your children…so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land.”

While this is the only section in which he doesn’t mention the word “commands”, that is what he wants them to fix to their hearts and minds.  When he uses the word “fix”, he is not referring to fixing something that is broken.  He is using “fix” in the sense of affixing something, putting something securely in place.  Those commands of God, and the ideas of loving God, serving him with all your heart and soul, those things should be fixed securely in place in your lives.  When you do that, he says, as he has said numerous times, the people will be fixed securely in the land for a long, long time.  Remember the axiom we talked about at the beginning of this series?  “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”  Do you see how what Moses is saying in this section might relate to that?  Before we go any further making that connection, we have a few more sections of Deuteronomy 11 to work through.  Keep following these posts, as we’ll discuss “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” soon!  For now, let’s take a look at Section 6.

If you’ve been tracking along with the previous 5 sections, there should be no surprise what we will find in Section 6, which is verses 22-25.

Guess the thing he wants them to do? Yeah, there it is again in verse 22: observe these commands, love the Lord, walk in his ways, hold fast to him. Sound familiar? 

And why does he want them to love God and observe his commands?  Think he can find any new reasons by now?  Well, he does.  In verse 23, he says God will drive out the nations before them.  In verse 24, God will enlarge their territory. And in verse 25, no one will be able to stand against them.  God is speaking to the fear in their hearts.  They had people in their camp who did not think it was a good idea to enter the Promised Land because the nations already there were so powerful.  There were some in Israel who were afraid, thinking this Promised Land idea was actually a suicide mission.  So here is God saying, “Yeah, there are nations larger and stronger than you. But they aren’t large enough or strong enough to deal with me.”  This directly relates to verses 8-9.  Remember that interesting “so that” phrase in verse 8?  There God says, “Observe my commands, so that you may have the strength to go in and take over the land.”  Here in verses 22-25 he is saying something very similar.  “Observe my commands, and I will give you victory.”  God will be their strength!

How do we grow our love for God in the midst of our fear?  We stay true to him, securely establishing his ways in our lives, and in the lives of the next generation. When we are faithful to him, when we follow his ways, he addresses our fear by saying that he will be with us and strengthen us.  God is not promising to make life perfect, but he is saying that in the middle of our fear and struggle, we can trust in him.  As we learned recently in the 1 Peter series, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.”   I’m not saying that casting our anxiety on God is easy.  I still struggle with it.  But what we clearly see in these teachings from both the Old and New Testament is that we can depend on him in the middle of our fear.  I suspect that it will take effort, including some failures, but as we keep striving to trust in him, we will grow in our ability to know what to do and how to do it.  Keep striving!

For me, one practice that has been so helpful in striving to cast my anxiety on God is the habit of contemplative prayer.  If you are not familiar with contemplative prayer, I would recommend a guide.  For me, that guide has been in the form of books and phone apps.  Here are some recommendations:

First of all two books I would recommend are:

  • Into The Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation by Martin Laird
  • Be Silent. Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace With God Through Contemplative Prayer by Ed Czyewski

Also good are:

  • The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction by Adam S. McHugh
  • Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God by Dallas Willard
  • The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
  • Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom
  • Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now by Walter Brueggeman

As said above, I have noticed that I cannot just say internally, “I will practice contemplative prayer.”   I need a guide.  And for me, Czyewski’s suggestions of finding smartphone apps proved quite good. Here are the apps I use:

Calm.  A mentor recommended this. It attempts a non-sectarian approach to meditation, breathing, etc.  But you will hear from time to time, in the guided meditations, references to eastern religious thinkers.  I never found it to be anti-Christian, though.  I also found that I could adapt it to focus on Christ as needed.  The free version limits access.  One year I paid for a subscription and that was great.  If possible, I recommend that.  I think the recommendations about breathing are excellent, but rather than a Buddhist emptying of the mind approach to meditation, I simply replaced that a biblical filling of the mind kind of meditation on God’s word. See the Centering Prayer app below.  The 7 Days of Calm is a great place to start.

Sacred Space. This is a guided prayer app that combines meditation on Scripture and thoughtful questions about encountering the presence of God, based on the practice of St. Ignatius of Loyola.  I’ve been impressed.  But I’ve also found it is easy to skim through it super-fast.

Reimagining the Examen. This is another guided prayer app, specifically based on Ignatius’ Prayer of Examen.  It is topical, so each day a bit different, and yet always focuses on accountability for our thoughts and our relationship with the Lord.  More in depth than Sacred Space, I’ve found.  Maybe a good way to end the day.

Prayer Mate. A supplication app.  Great for organizing prayer requests.

Centering Prayer. Very simple app for connecting with the presence of God and listening for him.  Based on Centering Prayer, which I know some Christians find controversial.  Tim Keller, for example, in his book, Prayer, is really hesitant.  But I think his concerns are out of line.  As I have learned about contemplative prayer, I have started using this app daily and Calm less and less.

 

How to grow your love for God, part 2

16 Oct
Photo by Kate Remmer on Unsplash

Yesterday I referred to the axiom, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” but I didn’t talk about how it matters.  This week we are looking at Deuteronomy 11, and how to grow love for God, and I promise that I’ll eventually explain how the axiom about the apple tree relates to this. But today, we look at more ways to grow our love for God.  If you didn’t read yesterday’s post, you can do so here.

Yesterday we looked at the first of seven sections in Deuteronomy 11, verses 1-7, where Moses tells the people of Israel that they can grow their love for God by remembering what he did in their lives.  That brings us to the next section, which covers verses 8-12.

In this second section, the thing he wants them to do is found in verse 8: observe all God’s commands.  Sounds similar to the first section, doesn’t it?

But this time, Moses’ rationale changes.  Why does he want them to observe all God’s commands?  Do you see he uses two “so that” statements?  Observe the commands…so that…what?  The first is in verse 8: “so that you may have strength to go in and take over the land.”  That is really interesting to me.  Observing God’s commands, Moses says, gives them strength. 

The second “so that” is in verse 9.  “Observe all the commands, so that you may live long in the land.”  Observing God’s commands, then, will give them strength and longevity in the Promised Land.  Then Moses reminds them that the Promised Land is amazing, so they will definitely want to be there.   In verse 10, he says the land is not like Egypt, which they had to work hard to irrigate.  In verses 11-12, he says the land across the Jordan will be irrigated from heaven by the Lord.  If they obey God’s commands, then, it will be like they get a bonus farmer with super farming powers that will be working along with them.

Once again, God is prominent in Moses’ rationale.  In the first section, God was their savior.  In this second section, he is their provider.  But they have to obey his commands to access his blessing.

That brings us to Section 3, which covers verses 13-15.  Go ahead and read those verses for yourself.  Are you starting to see the pattern?  Let’s take a closer look.

What is the thing he wants them to do? Yup, there it is again in verse 13: “faithfully obey the commands, love God, serve him with all your heart and soul.”  Seems familiar!

And what will the result be?  In verse 14, if they obey and love God, then God will send rain and they will have a wonderful harvest.  Likewise, in verse 15, God will provide grass for cattle.  The conclusion?  If they obey and love him, they will have food!  That’s pretty important in the days before supermarkets, especially considering the people he is talking to here.  What have they just been through…for 40 years…in the food department?  Nothing but manna and quail and a struggle to get clean water in the wilderness.  We can’t imagine what that must have been like.  It must have been glorious for these Israelites to have their minds filled with visions of a variety of tasty vegetables, fruits, grains, meats and drinks in the Promised Land.  God is saying, “people, if you obey my commands and love me and serve me with all your heart, it will be a buffet every day for you.”

What have we seen so far?  The people have loads of good reasons to love and obey God.  His work saving them in the past, and the dream of their own land, and a bountiful one at that, in their future.  Blessings abound for those who obey the Lord, Moses says.  How, then, can we grow our love for God?  By looking to him as our provider!  God will strengthen, sustain and supply.

How will you look to God as your provider?  One practical way is to obey his command to be generous.  When we practice generosity in our lives, we are saying, “God, I will gratefully, joyfully, give back to you from the blessing you have poured out on me.”  Some ways to practice generosity is through giving to your church family, or giving to local charitable organizations serving those in need in your community and around the world.  Giving generously might require you to live more simply, to spend less on your selfish, so that you have more disposable income to give away.  Will you take a step of faith and give generously, showing that you love God and depend on him as your provider?

Another way to depend on God as your provider is to follow him in ways that are difficult for you.  Maybe it is working with a person or group that irritate you or rub you the wrong way.  Maybe it is a ministry in your church that needs help, and you would much rather do something else, but you choose to lend your time and talent to that ministry anyway.  By the way, in almost any church family, children’s ministry needs people to serve.  Spend a Sunday per month in the nursery.  Teach in a children’s class.  You just might find that you learn more preparing to teach than realize!  Or maybe there is a family in your neighborhood that needs help with yard work or cleaning.  You have a lot of yard work and cleaning of your own to do, and you really don’t have time to help others, but you could choose to do so anyway.  Are there any people from different ethnicities or cultures, or those who speak a different language, and they seem disconnected from your community? How could you help them connect?

How will you show your dependence on God, who is your provider?

How to grow your love for God, part 1

15 Oct
Photo by Janos Patrik on Unsplash

Have you ever heard the phrase, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”?  What does it mean?

That children or young people tend to behave like their parents.  It happens all the time.  And it is not just that we look like our parents, or sound like them, but that we tend to have similar beliefs as our parents, and we have similar ways we act on those beliefs.  Of course, this is not always the case.  Most of us are at least somewhat different from our parents, and some of us are very different from our parents.

But how many of you adults have had that heart-shocking experience, after previously boldly proclaiming that you would never ever be like your parents, you then heard yourself say something that your parents said, or do something your parents did?  And it hits you like a thunderclap, “Oh my word…that’s what my mom would say!” Or “That’s what my dad would do.” It’s like this:

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  We become like our parents, and we can’t help it.  Why?  What is going on in this phenomenon?  It’s not complicated.  Kids spend a lot of time with their parents, and whether intentionally or unintentionally, the thoughts, actions, opinions, and behaviors of parents rub off on their kids.  Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and even friends, you too can have a great influence.

That is a reality check.  It means that we simply will influence the next generation.  How we spend our time among our young people matters.  They will become like us.  And that is what Moses turns to in Deuteronomy 11.

Deuteronomy Chapter 11 is a transitional chapter in this book.  It serves as a clear reminder to the people of Israel that they have a covenant treaty with their God, Yahweh.

There are seven sections in this chapter, and this week we briefly survey each one.  In each section Moses wants the people of Israel to do something, and he always gives them a rationale for why he wants them to do that thing.  In each section, let’s look at the action he wants them to do, and see if we can discover his rationale.

The first section is verses 1-7.

What is the thing he wants them to do?  He tells them in verse 1: Love God by keeping his…commands always.

What is his rationale for wanting them to love God by keeping his commands? We find that in verses 2-7.  He starts with the word, “Remember”.  “Remember God’s majesty,” Moses says, “God’s mighty hand, his outstretched arm.”

Then he repeats a phrase.  Do you see it?  In verses 3-6, he says this phrase in each verse: “what he did”.  He is talking about God, what God did.  Put that word “Remember” from verse 2 together with the phrase “what he did” repeated in verses 3-6, and you get a clear message from Moses to the people: “Remember…what he did!”

  • Verse 3 – What he did…in Egypt
  • Verse 4 – What he did…through the Red Sea
  • Verse 5 – What he did…in the desert
  • Verse 6 – What he did…to the disobedient

Remember what he did!  And what did God do?  Moses is saying, “He saved you, Israel!  Over and over, he saved you.”

Then in verse 7, Moses sums up this concept by saying, “with your own eyes you saw the great things the Lord has done.”  In this section, then, Moses is saying, when you look back over your life, and you remember God’s faithfulness and provision in your life, you’ll be motivated to show your love for him by keeping his commands.

How about you? What has God done for you?  Take some time today to review your life.  Remember what he did.  Make a list, even if it is a Top 5, and write it out, just like Moses did for Israel.  And spend some time thanking God for what he did.  Allow that Top 5 to inflame your heart with love for God.

What does this have to do with the phrase, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”?  Stay tuned!

What to do when life is hard and filled with tears

19 Dec

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A friend of mine has graciously allowed me to borrow his tiller each year to get our garden ready for planting.  It is a monster of a tiller.  You have to grip that thing with all your might, lower your center of gravity, and hold on for dear life. I am not kidding.  It is a workout.  Then if you hit a patch of hard ground, where the tiller blades might not be able to dig deep, the blades bounce off the ground, and the tiller lunges forward dragging you along, like the guy in the photo above.  It is a scene.  But as you muscle the machine back around for another pass, and another pass, that hard ground eventually gets broken up into smaller and smaller pieces.  Until finally, the tiller runs through earth smoothly, the dirt ready to be planted. And I’m sore for a few days.

Gardening and farming, done well, usually involves hard work, doesn’t it?

In my previous post, I talked about how our next Advent psalm of lament is a psalm of ascent.  It includes uplifting songs of joy, but it also talks about the hard work of growing produce.

We can see both of those emphases in the two sections of the psalm:

  1. Verses 1-3 Joyful Memory
  2. Verses 4-6 Tearful Lament

There is a phrase at the beginning of each section that serves as a marker, helping us know that there are in fact two sections.  That marker is the similar statement “brought back captives” or “restored our fortunes”.  In the original Hebrew these are nearly identical.

So let’s look at each section.

Section 1, verses 1-3 – Joyful Memory

The word “captives” in verse 1 reminds us that the psalmist is referring to the Babylonian exile.  The powerful Babylonians had attacked and defeated Israel, and carted them off.  They lived in Babylon for 70 years.  Then the Persians attacked and defeated the Babylonians, and Cyrus king of Persia allowed some Jews to return to Palestine.

My seminary prof, Dave Dorsey, taught that likely only 5% of the captives returned to Israel, 95% remained in Babylon.

But those 5% who returned, the psalmist tells us in verses 1-3, were like men who dreamed. One alternate translation I read says that this could be saying “Men returned to health, given new life.”

Imagine the wonder of that moment.  For 70 years they were in captivity.  You are taken into captivity.  If you were about 30 years old when you are taken into captivity, you probably have a young family in captivity.  Think about what happens in 70 years?  Likely you pass away, and it is maybe your kids, or even more likely, your grandkids, who return.

We talked about this last week.  The kids and grandkids have been hearing stories of the glory of Jerusalem and the temple and how wonderful the Promised Land was.  And now they get to return.

And they are laughing and singing.  They are praising the Lord!

You can see why this would be a great Pilgrimage song.  Just as the original exiles returned excitedly to Palestine and Jerusalem, singing songs of joy, each year as people all over Israel journeyed to Jerusalem for the various feasts, they would re-enact the original pilgrimage of those first captives who returned from exile.

So the psalmist is excited.  But his joy turns to lament.

Section 2, verses 4-6 – Tearful Lament

He laments because there is much yet to be sorrowful about, much restoration yet to take place.  In this lament, he uses the image of farming, talking about how sorrow leads to joy.

Planting is hard work, which is why he calls it tears of sorrow.

We have a garden in our back yard, and we like to plant some vegetables each year.  When gardening, the first thing you have to do might be clearing away old growth and weeds.  And then there might be the tilling, as I described in my experience with my friend’s monster of a tiller.

But tilling is only the beginning.  Next you do the work of planting, and then you do the work of protecting your plants, putting up fences to keep out the rabbits and groundhogs.  Then there is weeding, and then regular watering, and more weeding.  Day after day after day.  Week after week.

To be fair, we are spoiled here in Lancaster.  Our soil is astoundingly rich.  And we get regular rain.

In a dry climate like some parts of Israel, farming can be extremely difficult, and could even appear to be pointless.  How do you know if rains will come?  Will this be a waste?

That is possibly what is going on in the minds of the exiles.  They will not only be doing physical, real farming.  They will also be tending the figurative land, seeking to rebuild the city, the temple, and in a more important way, seeking to rebuild their nation and their relationship with God.  For the psalmist, the idea of planting tears, with the hope of reaping a harvest of joy, has deep, deep meaning.

That’s where we can take a look and examine our own lives.

What is the hard work of planting tears that you are doing in your life? What ground are you tilling?

It could be parenting.  Grand-parenting.  Reaching out to neighbors and friends.  You are investing time and energy in people, especially in your family and friends.

It could be a ministry in church, serving, teaching, using your gifts.

What other kinds of planting are you doing in your life?  What is hard?

Think about what you are praying for.

Is it a broken relationship, healing from physical pain and illness, financial hardship?

When you are praying, and when you are waiting, you are planting seeds of sorrow. That is lament.  Lament is prayer in which you are planting seeds of sorrow.  You are crying out to God, saying “Lord, this is hard work!  I need you to intervene.”

Israel was crying out to God for salvation, to send a savior.  The land was in bad shape.  They wanted God to come and save them.

That is what Advent is all about.  Advent means “the coming”.  In the season of Advent we remember the first coming of the savior, the Messiah, Jesus.  And we examine our lives and seek to make our lives ready for his second coming.  He came once and he said he is coming again.

In the midst of the difficulty, the darkness, in the midst of the hard work of planting tears, God entered the world.  Do you need God to enter your world?  Perhaps you’ll consider lament.

What is a song of ascent? (the next U2 album?)

18 Dec

Image result for song of ascents logo

For years the rock band U2 has been hinting that they are going to release an album called Songs of Ascent. What might “Songs of Ascent” refer to?  Why would U2 think of that title?

As the years went by, U2 changed directions a bit, first releasing an album called Songs of Innocence, and just this month, a companion album titled Songs of Experience.  Might there by a trilogy in the works, and Songs of Ascent is forthcoming?  Time will tell.

While there is no U2 album called “Songs of Ascent,” when I first heard they were considering that title, I took interest because there are psalms of ascent in the Book of Psalms in the Bible.  I wondered how these psalms might have sparked U2 to consider an album with that title?  So what are these songs of ascent?

During Advent 2017 at Faith Church we are learning to lament, and the psalmists are guiding us.  During this third week of Advent, we are studying Psalm 126.

Here it is.  Psalm 126

A song of ascents.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
    our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, Lord,
    like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
    will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
    carrying sheaves with them.

What do you notice first?

That it is short?  That there is no author named?  Both true.

What I want us to focus on is its subtitle: a song of ascents.  What is that?

An ascent is an upward movement.  We ascend the stairs.  I know, we don’t normally talk like that.  It sounds kind of fancy to talk like that.  We tend to say simply, “go upstairs”.  But that is what the word “ascent” refers to, a moving upward.  In Acts 1 we read about Jesus ascending to heaven, and thus we celebrate his Ascension Day.  On that day, Jesus, we believe, physically ascended, flew through the sky, upwards, to heaven.  His disciples, we are told, looked up and watched him fly higher and higher, apparently, until they could see him no longer.  That is an ascension, a movement upward.

So why is this called a psalm of ascents?

Actually all of Psalms 120-134 have this title, “A song of Ascents”.  The Hebrew word for “ascent” could refer to stairs, and even specifically the stairs leading up to the temple.

So the title could be translated “song of the stairs.”  Scholars tell us that these songs of ascent were used in worship in the temple, maybe sung by priests standing on the stairs.  Maybe even as people were ascending those stairs to enter the temple.  Scan through Psalms 120-134 and what do you notice?  They are all very short, and thus could fit well within the short amount of time it would take for people to walk up stairs.

If that is true, that the psalms of ascent were used in temple worship, then perhaps we could say that songs of ascent are a kind of preparatory songs to help people get ready to worship.  You can envision groups of priests and worshipers singing these songs together.

But scholars also tell us that these songs of ascent were used as pilgrimage songs.  There were a couple feasts each year in which Jews made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship at the temple.  Scholars believe that the pilgrims would sing together as they journeyed on foot or on the backs of animals, on their way to the city.

Almost certainly, this group of songs of ascent was written after the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile.  That is the same time period as Psalm 85 last week.  In fact, psalm 85 and 126, as I think will be very obvious, are often grouped together because they are so similar.

Take a look at the text of the psalm again.  Read it through a couple times.  What do you notice?

My first thought when reading Psalm 126 was, “Wait…Is this a lament?  The word ‘joy’ is repeated four times.  Laughter is mentioned.  The people proclaim, ‘The Lord has done great things for us.’ How is this lament?”

Just like last week in Psalm 85, what we see in Psalm 126 is an eruption of joy because the Lord has restored their fortunes in returning some of the people of Israel from exile in Babylon back to Palestine.  But right there in the midst of joy is also lament as they realize how far they as a nation have to go in order to keep the restoration going.

So this is a lament.  Starting with our next post, we’ll take a closer look at how this song of ascent is crafted and how we can learn more about lament from this psalmist.

When you cry out to God over and over and he doesn’t respond

7 Dec

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Have you ever waited for something a long time?  I feel like I regularly get in the store check-out line that has the longest wait.  It’s uncanny.  But that kind of wait is not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about waiting for something for months or years, and often the waiting involves pain.  It might be a physical ailment, and no matter the treatment, surgery or medicine, you are not getting better.  It might be relational pain, where a person who is a loved one now seems like an enemy, and as hard as you try, it is not getting fixed.  It might be a financial difficulty where, despite working multiple jobs to exhaustion, you can’t seem to pay off debt.  It might be national or global pain, as you watch the news about wildfires, floods, racism, poverty, refugee crisis, terrorism, or sexual predators.  As we discussed in the last post, there is much darkness in our world. And deep down you cry out to God, and you ask him to intervene. In fact, you ask him over and over and over, and it seems like you’re not getting anywhere.  You are just waiting and waiting, sitting in the pain.

If you’ve ever felt that, your in good company with Asaph, the writer of the first Psalm of Lament that we are studying at Faith Church this Advent.  Asaph looked at the situation the nation of Israel had gotten itself into, and he was deeply concerned.  Let’s take a look at how expressed his pain in this first lament, Psalm 80, and perhaps we might learn to lament as well.

Structurally the psalm has three sections, each with a repeated “Restore Us” refrain that concludes the section.  Here is a summary:

  • Section 1 – verses 1-2, concluding with the refrain in 3 – total of three verses
  • Section 2 – verses 4-6, concludes with 7 – total of four verses
  • Section 3 – verses 8-18, concludes with 19 – total of 12 verses

You see what the author, Asaph, is doing?  He is increasing the length of his plea. Even the repeated refrain is slightly expanded each time, a fact we’ll look more at in the next post.  Why is Asaph adding material each time?  He wants us to sense a growing urgency to his lament.

Let’s take a deeper look at each section to hear and learn from his lament.

Section 1 – verses 1-3

The image he uses here is that of God as Shepherd, residing in the temple.  Asaph sees God as the shepherd, and thus the people of Israel are his sheep.  The idea of God as Israel’s Shepherd is very common throughout the Old Testament.  They were led by God, cared for by God, as a good shepherd does for his sheep. Asaph looks around him and sees that the sheep are in danger, and he cries out for the Shepherd to do his job!

But the scene that Asaph paints for us is not just a pastoral one.  The mention of the cherubim in verse 2 is that of the Ark of the Covenant in the most holy place of the temple.  There the presence of the Lord resided.  Perhaps he is here likening God to a shepherd that is just hanging out in the temple, and not doing his job, which is to care for the sheep.  In fact, he depicts the shepherd as being asleep while the sheep are being afflicted.  So he calls for God to wake up, move out from there and save the people.

Lament often cries out to God to wake up and intervene.  That might sound very inappropriate.  As if the lamenter is accusing God of not doing his job.  The psalmist, no doubt, knows that God is holy and perfect and righteous.  Therefore, Asaph is not being disrespectful or accusing God of being irresponsible.  Instead Asaph knows that Israel is at fault for the predicament they’re in.

And yet that is lament for you: emotional, deep, crying out to God.  When we’re emotional, we don’t always think straight do we?  We don’t always craft our words perfectly.  We sometimes say things we don’t mean or even believe.  The emotion is so strong.  We’re desperate.  And so we say things like “God, you are our Shepherd!  Get up off your seat and take care of us!”  Lament is intense like that. And in the next section the intensity continues.

Section 2 – verses 4-7

Verse 4 starts with Asaph calling out to God again, asking of him “How long will your anger smolder against the prayer of your people?”

The image is quite vivid isn’t it?  The word “smolder” there could also be translated “smoke”.  I think of the hot smoking glowing red ashes in my wood stove.  We put ashes from our stove in our ash bucket, and take them out on our deck.  But if they are hot, if they are smoking, glowing red, we do not keep them on our deck.  All it would take is a gust of wind to blow some of those hot coals on to the deck, and we would be in big trouble.

So anytime we have smoking ash and coals, we dump it in our fire pit, which is way down in our yard, far away from the house.  There it can safely cool down, even if the wind is blowing.  We do this because smoldering ash and coals are powerful, with a great potential for destruction.  That’s the image the psalmist uses of God’s anger.

We could easily see God’s anger here as mean-spirited and unjust.  But God’s anger is best understood as a righteous anger.  The reason for his anger, the reason for the calamity the people have experienced, has everything to do with their unrighteousness. The psalmist would not be unaware of that, or trying to dispute that Israel had messed up.  The psalmist is just expressing deep longing for a change, and he knows God can bring that change.

And so Asaph utters words that are classic signposts of lament: “How long?”.  When you hear the psalmist say “How long O Lord?” you could think he is being impatient or fussy.  He is not.

Instead, one scholar says the words ‘how long?’ describe, “hope deferred, and though sick at heart, still clinging to God and yet protesting against the long-protracted calamities.”

We get the idea of “hope deferred.” How many of you know that very personally?  You have hopes and dreams, but they are deferred, meaning that they are not being realized.  You are waiting and waiting, and you are wondering “How long?”

We also get the idea of being “sick at heart”, that deep emotional longing in the midst of waiting.  Look at how Asaph describes the pain.

In verse 5 he describes the pain by saying to God: “you have fed them with the bread of tears.  You made them drink tears by the bowlful.”  Whew. That is some deep pain.  Rather than the manna in the desert that tasted like honey, and rather than water from the rock that tasted sweet, God is now giving them nothing but tears.

What’s worse, he says in verse 6, is that the neighboring countries around Israel see them in pain, and those neighboring countries mock Israel.

And yet, as the psalmist laments and feels the pain, he is not letting go of God. He is actually reaching out to God.  Clinging to God. That, too, is classic lament.  When we say “thoughts and prayers are with you” we too often put a quick phrase out there, and then we move on to the next thing.  When we face tragedy, the pain and confusion is so difficult to wrap our minds around that we tend not to even try.  But in the psalms of lament, the psalmist is engaging the tragedy and the pain, he is looking it full in the face, he is holding it up to God and saying “God, do you see this?  What are you doing about this?  Why are you taking so long to respond to this?”

He is clinging to God, but he is protesting God at the same time.  “How long, O Lord?”  Lament cries out to God from a heart that is sick with pain, but still clinging tightly to God in faith, knowing God is our hope, and yet also upset with God because it is taking so long.

Rather than turning away from the tragedy, or avoiding dealing with the tragedy, lament sits down in the tragedy, examines the tragedy, and shows it to God saying, “How Long O Lord?”

That might sound light an act of unbelief, or disrespect, or sinful rebellion. Instead, lament is an act of deep faith.  Lament knows that the situation is dire, the pain is awful, and there is only one solution.  God.  And lament persistently, boldy, enters into that pain and asks God to deal with it.

There is something incredibly meaningful, therefore, to the practice of lament.  There is something powerful about it.  I think the power of lament flows from the inner passionate experience of pain found in a person who is facing that pain, combined with that person’s choice to cling tightly to the Lord in the midst of that pain.

Here’s the thing about Psalm 80, though. Though the psalmist says “How long, O Lord,” he’s not done yet!  In our next post we’ll look at section 3, the remainder of the psalm, to see how Asaph continues his lament.

Who are you really? (And how to find out)

4 Dec

In my last post, I mentioned that in Deuteronomy 9 Moses gives the people of Israel an exam, and he has shocking news for them.  Remember the principle?  They are not righteous in and of themselves.  They were in danger of thinking that God brought them to the Promised Land because they were so good.  So to help them see the truth about themselves, Moses reminds them of their nation’s major mess-up, that time they made an idol and worshiped it.  You can go back to Exodus 32 and read the original account.  Here in Deuteronomy 9 Moses just summarizes it.

Here’s what happened in a nutshell:

The people of Israel had just witnessed the amazing miracle of walking through the Red Sea, as the waters are parted.  That is one of the miracles most people would long to see.  Israel saw it.  If I saw that, I think I would be committed to Jesus for the rest of my life.  I would never doubt him.  My faith would never waver.

Guess what?  A month and a half later Israel is worshiping a golden calf, an idol they made.  How is that possible?  It is tempting to think that something is wrong with Israel. As if they are an especially disobedient and fickle people.  You’d think they’d make it longer than a month and a half trusting in God, after having seen him part the waters of the Red Sea.

But you have to remember that they are still getting to know this God.  And when Moses, their primary connection to this God, leaves them to go up the mountain to meet with God, which is exactly what happened right before they made the idol, what is Israel to think?  They have no word from Moses as to how long he will be gone.  How long do they wait for him to come back?  How long would you wait?  Think about how you would feel after a week?  And then two weeks go by?  Then another week!  I am totally thinking in terms of our impatient American culture where we want everything done fast.  But waiting even a couple weeks for Moses to return seems like an interminably long time.

It does not take long for any people in any era to get impatient.  And the people of Israel at this point are at an especially precarious spot in their walk with God.  They don’t have the benefit of centuries of watching God remain faithful.  They have one and a half months.  It is really hard for us to put ourselves in their shoes, how they must have felt.

And yet, Moses is hard on them here in Deuteronomy 9 isn’t he?  He totally faults them for what they did. As I thought about it, part of me wants Moses to tone it down, to give Israel some grace.  “Come on Moses, they didn’t have the vantage point that you had on the mountain.  They thought you had left them, or maybe that you had died up there.  It’s not like you took food and water enough for 40 days!  Geez.”

I think, though, it is possible that I want grace and mercy for Israel because I know I am like Israel.  I know I need mercy and grace too. We all do.

And yet, Israel did do something incredibly wrong.  They were impatient.  They demanded that Moses’ brother Aaron, who was the high priest, take their gold and make an idol for them to worship. And Aaron did just that.  He made an gold idol in the shape of calf.  The people were impatient, desperate for a god they could see and touch.  They weren’t so sure about this YHWH who was invisible, who had taken their leader Moses away.

So Israel made an idol and worshiped it.  That’s the story of the Golden Calf.

As Moses stands before them here in Deuteronomy 9, that golden calf episode was 40 years prior.  The generation that committed that act of idolatry has passed away.

That makes me question why Moses says to the new generation in verse 7: “Remember this and never forget how you provoked the Lord your God to anger in the desert.”  Does that strike you as odd too?  He lumps that generation right in with their forefathers.  It could seem unfair.  If I was there listening to Moses, maybe I would be thinking, “Wait a minute, Moses, I didn’t do that. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t even born yet.”  And yet Moses goes into detail retelling the story as if they did it, as if they were there.  Why? Moses needs them to face the fact that the Golden Calf episode, though a part of their history that they themselves were not responsible for, still serves as a reminder of how weak their faith can be.

So let’s bring this all back around to what Moses is attempting to do in chapter 9. In Part 1, which is verses 1-6, Moses is teaching a principle which he clearly states in verses 4-6: Israel should not think they are righteous and that their righteousness is why God is giving them the Promised Land.

Then comes Part 2, verses 7-29, where Moses illustrates for them how unrighteous they have been.

What is Moses doing?  He is giving them the truth.  He knows they could easily have a false impression about themselves.  He knows they could become prideful and arrogant, and they have no business being prideful and arrogant considering how unrighteous they have been.  Moses is giving them a dose of reality.

Just as Moses is giving Israel a needed dose of reality, how can we have a healthy, appropriate honest self-assessment, without pridefully or arrogantly thinking that we don’t need it?

We need the correct view of ourselves.  We should not assume that we already have a healthy self-assessment.  We might have the correct view of ourselves, but we should always be cautious about that.

This can go both ways.  Some of us, like Israel, already have or are in danger of having a too-high view of ourselves.  Others among us have a too-low view of ourselves.  Neither are healthy.  We might think we’re righteous when we’re not.  And we might think we’re evil or worthless when we’re not.  I’ve heard a lot of both. People who think they are wonderful, and people who think they are failures.

Instead we need the truth.  We need to be people who actively seek God’s view of us.  What is God’s view of us?  We get a picture of God’s view of us when we look at how Moses finishes Deuteronomy 9.  Moses was so upset at the people during that golden calf incident. But he still prayed for them in verses 25-29. He intervened for Israel. God wanted to destroy Israel and start over with Moses. But Moses pleads with God to show mercy.  God listens to Moses!

What does that show us about how God views us?  God forgives and showers his mercy on us. That is the kind of loving God he is.  God hears and cares.  He listens.  He sees all the rebellion and disobedience we can do, yet he is so willing to forgive.

There is hope for us who have worshipped golden calves.  There is hope for us who have failed.  Because God is merciful and forgiving.  No matter if our opinion of ourselves is too high or too low, we have a God who loves us.

When you look intently into the mirror of God’s word, what will you learn about yourself?  What will you see in the mirror?  You will see a person who God created, a person who bears the divine image, a person who God loves.  That is you.

Therefore, knowing that we are loved more than we can imagine, let us fight hard to have a healthy self-perspective.  Do not trust yourself to give yourself a true perspective of who you are.

Invite others into the process of self-evaluation.

Spend time in the Bible.  The mirror of God’s word, as James calls it (see James 1:19-27). Ask God to speak to you through his word.

Think about how you have annual evaluations at work.  Wouldn’t it be interesting if we had annual evaluations as to how we are doing as disciples of Jesus?

Evals are intimidating and scary.  I feel that too. Every year our Faith Church Pastoral Relations Committee gives me my annual evaluation.  I’m always nervous going in to that meeting.  But every year it is so, so good to learn about myself.

I encourage you to ask for the eval, invite it, beg for it.  Fight for it.  Become desperate for the truth about yourself.  Strive hard to answer the questions, “How is my attitude?  How am I thinking about myself?  Am I believing any lies about myself?”

As you learn the truth about yourself, there might be things you don’t like.  Things that need to change.  Work on changing them.  Do not only receive the information about yourself, begin to make strides to change.  Remember that God loves you, and that he is a forgiving God.  And he wants to empower us to make those changes.