Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"This Ain't Happen'in"

Today's readings:
Morning Prayer: Psalm 119:1-24
Acts 16:6-15
Mark 6:30-46

At some point our relentless commitment to a goal can become a stubborn refusal to be led by the Spirit. I wonder how often I've prayed for guidance that I really didn't want? Two of the lectionary readings this morning had this idea as a subtext, a drama working quietly beneath the real action of the story.

Paul wanted to go back and visit churches that he had planted on an earlier missionary journey. A good idea, sensible and right, worthy of faithful church planter. You can read Acts 16:6-10 and get the story of how that plan was tanked.

In Mark 6, Jesus had sent out the twelve to preach and heal and cast out demans - and they did it. They had stories to tell and experiences to reflect on and learn from. They needed time away, and that's exactly what Jesus suggested. The only problem was that people wouldn't leave them alone. The planned retreat was ruined - but in the midst of that, a miracle took place (Mark 6:30-44).

At what point do you stop pushing the plan? It's an admirable thing to be commited to a task and to not be easily discouraged. Remember the movie Rudy? Have you heard how John Grisham's first novel was rejected by more than 30 publishers? They didn't quit. They didn't stop after two or three polite "no thank-yous." But at some point it seems that you just have to come clean with yourself and with God and step back and say "this ain't happn'in."

Sometimes we push the plan in ways that are aggressive and driven. We will make it happen. All the while we're doing this prayerfully, looking to God for the strength we need to do what we know God has called us to do. The resistance we encounter is nothing more than God's way of testing us and in so doing making us stronger.

Sometimes we push the plan quietly. We take to heart the frequent biblical admonitions to "wait upon the Lord." We preach to ourselves a familiar sugar-stick sermon, remembering that our timing is not God's timing. We resolve to wait on God to act, taking as our model Abraham and other giants of the faith who persevered in hope. We wait and wait and wait.

This is not a theoretical question. It is real and painful for many today: for applicants seeking a job, for couples trying to conceive, for patients going for yet one more round of chemo, for single people who always planned to be married, for writers who dream of being published and students whose career plans depend on acceptacnce to a school.

There's no formula that answers this. There's no magic eight-ball to shake that will tell you to "hang on a little longer" or "hang it up now."

When Jesus taught us to pray, he gave the words "thy will be done." He did not teach us to pray "thy will be known." Maybe the best answer is nothing more than prayer - prayer for what we want and for guidance and all the usual standard requests, but also prayer as Jesus taught us to pray. And then we trust God to do what God wills to do.

We pray with confidence because we know that with God there's always "somethin' happen'in." And we will not be left out.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Lighters and Cell Phones

Hallelujah . . . (Psalm 150:1).

It used to be cigarette lighters. Back when “The Omni” was still the primary concert venue in Atlanta that’s how people called for an encore. Little flames appeared all over the auditorium and the crowd would be going nuts, and once enough little flames popped up and the volume was sustained long enough, the band would come back for an encore.

I always felt left out of that moment. I never had a cigarette lighter. My personal habits were such that a lighter was not something I just happened to have in my pocket. Stopping to get one just for a concert never occurred to me, so I just stood there and made noise while others speckled the blackness with their little lights.

But today things are a little different. The light of choice at the end of a concert is a cell phone, and that I have. While the source of light has changed the experience is still the same. Lots of noise, a galaxy of cellular light spread across the darkness – and then the encore.

The final five Psalms are an on-your-feet celebration. The entire Psalter ends with succession of five exuberant “Hallelujah” Psalms, five different ways of saying “Praise the Lord.” When we pray these Psalms we’re standing up, holding our cell phones high, voicing light that shatters darkness with the Praise of God. We’re calling for an encore; we’re yearning for more of the music of heaven and the works that God accomplishes day after day.

Praise is not only the end of the Psalms. Praise is the end of all things. This is where everything is headed. And that includes you and me. We see a picture of it whenever we sing the old hymn “Amazing Grace.” The hymn ends with a picture of eternal praise, as fresh after ten thousand years as if it had just begun five minutes ago. All things end in praise. This is what we were made to do; it what “everything that has breath” was made to do.

Borrowing words from a familiar friend, we are helped by this explanation:

This crafted conclusion for the Psalms tells us that our prayers are going to end in praise, but that it is also going to take a while. Don’t rush it. It may take years, decades even, before certain prayers arrive at the “hallelujahs” . . . Not every prayer is capped off with praise. In fact most prayers, if the Psalter is true guide, are not. But prayer, a praying life, finally becomes praise. Prayer is always reaching toward praise and will finally arrive there. If we persist in prayer, laugh and cry, doubt and believe, struggle and dance and then struggle again, we will surely end up at Psalm 150, on our feet, applauding “Encore! Encore!” (Eugene H. Peterson, Answering God, p. 127).

This Sunday the Tour de France ends in Paris. The final stage is an exuberant triumphant ride into the city, crowds lining the streets. If the number one spot is not being contested, you’ll see some of the riders sipping champagne as they pedal the closing kilometers. It’s a party on the streets. It’s even a party on wheels.

It is fitting that today we conclude the Tour de Psalms. We come to the final reflection and give our attention to a single word: “Hallelujah.” The very last Psalm, Psalm 150, begins and ends with this word. And this word is where our lives are headed. This is the trajectory, the destination, of the ride of your life.

It may take a while to reach that destination. This ride is a long one. But there’s no doubt as to where we’re headed. You can begin today. Even in a dark place you can raise your cell phone. Break open the champagne if you wish. But get on your feet and find a way to give God praise.


Prayer: Psalm 150
Praise the LORD.
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens.
2 Praise him for his acts of power;
praise him for his surpassing greatness.
3 Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
praise him with the harp and lyre,
4 praise him with tambourine and dancing,
praise him with the strings and flute,
5 praise him with the clash of cymbals,
praise him with resounding cymbals.
6 Let everything that has breath praise the LORD.
Praise the LORD.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

One Way or the Other

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord (Psalm 150:6).

Something odd happened in one of our church services this past Sunday. Nothing weird or offensive, just odd: as in peculiar and unfamiliar, slightly out of place but by no means inappropriate.

We had sung three verses of the opening hymn, a glorious text that extols God as “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.” This hymn text, composed in 1876, is based on 1 Timothy 1:17. “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”

I love this hymn. It’s a standard piece of our worship repertoire. The tune is familiar. The words are familiar. What was less familiar this past Sunday is what happened on the front pew as we started singing that last verse.

Someone raised their hand.

That’s right. They lifted their hand straight up in the air like they had a question. They extended the arm heavenward as if reaching for a jar on a high shelf, as if beaming their words to the Almighty with what some have referred to as the “Holy Spirit antennae.”

There are many churches where this kind of thing is as common as passing the offering plate. Ours is not one of them. Presbyterians in general are not given to bodily expressions of praise. We stand and sit, and occasionally push the envelope with measured applause, but hands being raised to organ music? As I said, that’s a little odd.

When that hand went up in the air, a couple of thoughts went through my mind.

The first was simply “Yes . . . that’s right . . . that’s fitting for what we are doing in this moment. It is so right for what we are saying with our mouths: ‘Great Father of glory, pure Father of light, thine angels adore thee all veiling their sight.’ Mere singing hardly seems to do this justice. Our hearts will not be lifted by singing only. Raise the hand with the voice. It is right.”

And then came the questions: “If it seems right, why do I not do that myself? Is it fear? Is it my upbringing? How is God to be praised?”

When Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, exuberant disciples greeted him with words of praise. Apparently the celebration bordered on raucous. Some of the more dignified religious leaders tried to maintain order. They urged Jesus, “Teacher rebuke your disciples.” Jesus basically told them that containment of praise was a waste of time and effort. “If they keep quiet the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:39-40).

I have long resisted the notion that those who truly know how to praise God in fullness and freedom will do so with physical acts of worship. God is certainly praised in that way – but that’s not the only way. Episcopalians are just as capable of praise as the “holy rollers.” The restrained are to praise God as well as the expressive.

But whether restrained or expressive, what we all need to know is that God will be praised one way or the other. Praise isn’t optional. Jesus had it right. Either we’ll do it, or the rocks will take up the song. But God will be praised. Presbyterians are not exempt from praise. And the Pentecostals are not the only ones who know how it’s done. God will be praised and that praise is to come from everything that has breath. That includes you.

How do you praise God?

“Praise Ye the Lord! O let all that is in me adore Him! All that hath life and breath, come now with praises before Him! Let the Amen sound from His people again: Gladly for aye we adore him” (Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty, The Hymnbook, 1).

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Seeking Stability

I will praise you, O Lord, with all my heart (Psalm 138:1)

I’m not stable.

That’s not a psychological assessment or medical diagnosis, it’s a biblical truth. The Bible is quite clear that a double-minded man is unstable in all that he does (James 1:8). I’m afraid that’s me: Double-minded and thus unstable, at least for this week.

This week I’m trying to live with the story of Job, mining the opening chapter of that perplexing story for a singular clear message to speak on Sunday. The story of Job is unnerving and dark. This man is plunged into the deepest kind of suffering: the loss of his family, financial ruin and the loss of his business, and eventually the loss of his health. He ends up sitting in the dirt, scraping his flesh with a shard of pottery. That’s too much for us and we don’t know what to do with it. We turn our faces.

At the same time, every morning this week I have the opportunity to rummage the book of Psalms and pull together a few words about praise. The Psalms end with a crescendo of praise, reveling in God’s creative power and redemptive love. Since the Psalms end with praise it seems only right that a series of reflections on the Psalms end the same way. So praise it is for the remainder of the week.

It should be fairly obvious why my mind is divided, pulled one way by the words of praise and then another by pictures of suffering. It’s hard to get our minds around the praise of God and the anguish of people. Majestic chords reverberate above while melancholy strains echo here below. The dissonance is unbearable.

The bible, especially the Psalms, don’t merely encourage us to praise God. Praise is commanded. Do it. Praise the Lord. We’re willing, but pain makes it hard. We see the story of Job lived out again and again in so many ways. There’s a good chance you’ve lived that story yourself. How do we hold praise and suffering together – not simply in our thinking, but in our living? How do we live honestly in this world and still respond to God with praises?

The answer – or at least an important clue - to that question is found not in philosophical speculation, but in the text of the book of Psalms itself. As we spend time with these prayers we begin to notice that praise is possible in the midst of suffering.

It’s not unusual for a Psalm to give voice to deep distress and disturbing questions in one moment and then blurt out a word of praise to God in the next. It’s sounds a little strange to us, but it’s common in the Psalms. Psalm 13 is an example: five blunt questions are followed by three calls for help – and then a final sentence of praise. Where did that come from?

Dr. Steve Hayner, the newly appointed President of Columbia Theological Seminary, maintains that the essence of praise in the Psalms is found in the way those who suffer keep moving toward God, taking steps toward God in every circumstance. The Psalmists insist on dealing with God in all things, even their suffering. That’s why all of the Psalms, even the complaints, are called “Praises.”

This is a powerful and important insight. Praise is not an emotion. Praise is not even a type of happy language or God-talk. Praise is about the direction of your life, even in experiences of great affliction. To praise is to keep dealing with God, living life God-ward in all things.

How have suffering and praise mingled in your life experience?

I want to praise you with my whole heart and my whole life, O Lord. I want to move toward you with all that I am and all that I experience: when my cup is filled to overflowing and when it’s empty, when I’m at my best and when I’m at my worst, in the pleasures you give to me and in the pains as well. I will praise you with my whole heart, stable and steadfast by the help of your Spirit. Amen.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Learning Our Lines

. . . a song of praise is fitting (Psalm 147:1)

During the summer months it seems like a new movies hit the theaters every week. In recent days I’ve seen two of them: Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince followed a couple of days later by Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

In most ways, these two movies couldn’t be more different.

Though not requiring it, the Harry Potter movie assumes a literate audience in that the movie is based on a series of novels. There is an implied history to the movie and one’s capacity to follow and enjoy the drama is enhanced by knowing about the earlier books and / or films.

Transformers, by contrast, merely requires that the audience have a pulse. Yes, this recent installment is a sequel, but plot takes a back seat to stunning high-tech special effects and frequent explosions. One’s capacity to enjoy the drama is predetermined to some extent by the amount of testosterone coursing through one’s body. Watching a tractor trailer truck “unfold” into an enormous robot is great fun, especially when you’re at the movies with your son who thinks you’re just as cool as Optimus Prime for taking him to the show, leaving the women in the family to find some other form of entertainment.

As different as these two movies were, there is one thing they share in common. Both of these movies are about a very ordinary person caught up in an epic story of conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil, between light and dark, between life and death, between blessing and curse. Harry moves closer to an inevitable confrontation with the Dark Lord. Sam is once again the human ally of Optimus and the hunted foe of Megatron and his ilk.

These huge sweeping stories are what draw us to the movies to begin with. And while it may be a stretch, that kind of thing may be what draws us to the Psalms. The Psalms give us language for entering into the epic drama of what God is doing in the world. Beneath the specific petitions and laments and praises of each individual Psalm there is one abiding conviction that undergirds every one of these 150 poems. God is present and active in the world and we are involved in what God is doing.

When it comes to perceiving the drama of God’s work around us, we are too often crusty-eyed and thick-lidded. Failing to see the action, we live from day without the slightest sense of our role in what’s taking place. We feel plain. Our days are defined by expectations and obligations. We may not dislike the story we’re living, but it hardly seems epic and large; nothing of great significance hangs in the balance. And it hardly qualifies as sacred.

Perhaps one of the most basic ways we find our place in the large story of God’s activity in our world is by learning our lines. This makes sense for those who have a role in a drama. The lines we speak are what the Psalms call “praise.” As we enter into this final week of the Tour de Psalms, praise will be our focus. We’re going to work on learning our lines.

Praise is what we do when we become aware of God around us. It’s what we speak and sing and tell as we get a feel for the divine drama unfolding around us. More than that, it’s how we live into that story. We see that we are in fact caught up in something huge, something far more than obligations and habits. To praise God is to play our part, to speak our lines, to take our place in the epic story.

What do you think it means to “praise God?”

I want to find my place in your story, O God. As the drama unfolds around me today, help me to see it – and help me to answer you, to speak back as you do your work in this world. Teach me how to praise you with my life today. Amen.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Even in Our Wandering

He guided them with the cloud by day and with light from the fire all night (Psalm 78:14).

It seems crazy, but it happens all the time.

We pray for guidance. We ask God to show us the way, to lead us in his truth, to direct our steps according to his will. And then we decline to accept it. Thanks, but no thanks.

Sometimes this is a failure of discernment. We simply get it wrong. We choose a way that seems blessed, marked with all the characteristics of divine approval. But having set out on that way our certainty begins to evaporate. Questions take root in the mind, eventually growing like kudzu. Maybe God had something else in mind for us?

But sometimes we are hindered by a lack of will. We sense God’s leading. What we sense is confirmed by others that we trust. But it’s a hard way. We had rather move in a different direction. So we refuse the guidance given to us. We’re good at spiritualizing such choices, sparing ourselves the discomfort of outright disobedience.


That’s what God’s people did at a place called Kadesh Barnea. God had delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and promised to take them to a good land. Poised on the threshold of the land God had promised, a twelve member scouting party was sent out to explore the terrain. When they returned, ten of the spies gave a report that discouraged and frightened the people. “We cannot take the land.” Only two chose to believe what God had promised. The majority won – and 40 years of wandering followed (Numbers 13:26-33).

God had made a promise and then guided them to that promised place. They refused to enter. That promise was placed on hold until a generation passed away. Until then, Israel’s story would be a story of wandering, learning to trust, learning to worship, learning to obey.

And even in their wandering, God would guide them. Psalm 78:14 reminds us of the story. A cloud guided them by day, a pillar of fire by night.


God is faithful in guiding us. God is far more faithful in guiding than we are in following. That means that the guidance you chose to ignore yesterday will never keep you from finding the guidance you seek today. You do not need to live your life looking back, wondering “what if” and “if only.”

So much of modern life is characterized by wandering. Some wander from job to job, never making the connection between daily work and divine purpose. Some wander from marriage to marriage, convinced that the next person will be the one they’ve sought all along. Others wander through a wasteland of credit cards and debt, intent on buying joy and peace. And some even wander from church to church, never quite satisfied that what they’ve found is “spiritual” enough.

In all our wandering, God still manages to guide us. The harsh elements of our modern deserts are blunted by the daytime cloud and the nighttime fire. God still guides us, even in our wandering.

What kinds of deserts have you wandered through? How did God lead you?

“Guide me, O thou great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land. I am weak, but thou art mighty; hold me with thy powerful hand. Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more; feed me till I want no more” (Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah, The Hymnbook, 339).

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Dangerous Prayer

He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way (Psalm 25:9).

To any and all who, like me, often pray for guidance, a word of caution is in order. Let the pray-er beware: Prayers for guidance are dangerous prayers. The writer to the Hebrews assures us that we can approach the “throne of grace” with confidence. But when it comes to your quest for guidance, don’t let your confidence make you careless. Tread lightly before God when you seek God’s guidance.

The reason: God will likely answer your prayer.

As I’ve thought about this I’ve had to admit that my prayers for guidance are often no more than a series of multiple choice questions that I’ve placed before the Almighty. In other words, I’ve identified the acceptable options and what I’m really seeking is the divine cheat-sheet, thus insuring the right answer among the various options I’ve already envisioned for my life.

Without editing for pastoral correctness, my prayer goes something like this:

Lord . . . I don’t know what to do here . . . I could do this, and then that will happen . . . I could do that and then live with the implications for thus and such. But surely, you will guide me to this or that. Please let me know which. Amen.

Of course, there may be more than two options on the table. The point is, we often pray for guidance having already determined the acceptable destinations. The reason prayers for guidance are dangerous is that God is perfectly free to answer in ways we never imagined. We offer such prayers cautiously because to ask for God’s guidance also means that we’re ready to follow it, wherever it might lead us.

There’s Peter, going to the rooftop to pray, observing the liturgical prayer hours like a good and faithful Jew. As Peter prays (surprise, surprise) God answers. God asks Peter to eat forbidden slimy things. God tells Peter to go with strangers to the home of a Gentile soldier. Was this the kind of guidance Peter sought as he faithfully observed the afternoon hour of prayer? (See Acts 10:9-48).

There’s Paul, packing his duffle bag and setting off to check up on all those little congregations he had helped to start years earlier. When he tries get back to the province of Asia the Spirit stops him. Paul then tries to enter Bithynia only to be stonewalled yet again by the Spirit of Jesus. And then, trying to grab some sleep in the midst of this frustrating journey, Paul dreams a dream in which he is being summoned to Macedonia. Macedonia was not on the itinerary. But guidance doesn’t always show up on the AAA trip-tic (Acts 16:6-10).

God wants to answer your prayers for guidance, but be ready. God may take you to a place you never would have chosen to go. God may lead you to do something you never thought you’d do. God may have someone in mind that, as of today, you’ve never laid eyes upon. Be ready and be warned. God answers prayers for guidance.

Psalm 25 provides the language we need when asking for guidance. Verses 4-5 ask God to “show me your ways” and “teach me your paths.” The request is repeated as the Psalmist says, “Guide me in your truth and teach me.” A key to how God answers that request is found a few verses later. “He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.”

God guides the humble – those who don’t know the destination and know they don’t know, those who are most willing to go wherever God leads, those who have given up trying to determine the best possible outcomes and options. As we pray we will think through our options. We are free to ask for what we want. But true guidance comes to those who are humble, open to wherever God may lead. These are dangerous prayers – but worth the risk.

Are you really ready for God to guide you today?

Our prayers for guidance often limit you, O God. We confess to setting agendas and laying out the best options – then looking to you for help. Grant to us a humility that is willing to go wherever you lead and do whatever you ask, to the glory of your name above all else. Amen.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Directionally Challenged

He leadeth me beside the still waters (Psalm 23:2).

I love Microsoft Outlook. Maybe it’s because it fosters the illusion that I really can manage my own life. Maybe it’s because of the rectangular boxes that neatly contain each hour of the day. Perhaps it’s the fact that I can click on a button near the top of my screen and Outlook will show me my entire work week at a glance.

Take today for example: an 8:30 a.m. meeting followed by an open morning that will (hopefully) allow me to write Tuesday’s devotional reflection. Then a lunch appointment and an afternoon meeting to review and proof-read an early draft of the Sunday worship bulletin. Assuming I made some decent progress on the devotional earlier in the day, I’d like to get to the gym late in the afternoon.

Yes, I do love Microsoft Outlook. It’s all right there: God’s will for my life arranged vertically.

There is one thing, however, that Outlook does not do for me and never has been able to do. It does not stop me from praying for guidance. The crisp neat boxes for every hour and the easy access to a week of plans and appointments do not relieve me of the sense that I need some kind of direction from beyond myself. I pray for guidance all the time. Maybe you do too.

We carefully schedule the meetings that we must attend in order to do our jobs well. But perhaps deep down we’re sensing the need for some guidance when it comes to the direction of our vocation. “Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?”

We make plans to go out on the weekend, but we crave guidance when it comes to the relationships we’re forming. Maybe one particular relationship requires so much energy. “Is this what it takes to be close to someone? Am I investing too much energy in something that isn’t right?”

Whether you use Outlook or a plain old-fashioned monthly calendar that hangs on your kitchen wall, you can have plenty of plans but still feel the need for guidance. Sometimes guidance has to do with the daily decisions we make. Just as often, guidance has to do with the direction of our life.

Guidance is what we pray for when we’re trying to see the connections between what we do with our days and what our days are doing with us. We may be good with plans, but directionally challenged. The good news: God is patient and merciful to the directionally challenged.

The Psalms remind us repeatedly that God loves to give guidance. God leads us beside still waters (Psalm 23). God guides us with his counsel (Psalm 73:24). God’s word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119:105). God will be our guide to the end (Psalm 48:14).

This week we’ll spend a few days thinking and praying about God’s guidance. Even if you’re at a place in life where you’ve got your bearings and you know where you’re headed, God’s guidance is something we need constantly. Maybe you need to be reminded to seek it. Maybe you’ve been seeking it desperately for some time. Either way, these prayers can be prayed with confidence. God is a faithful guide.

Where do you need guidance today?

“He leadeth me: O blessed thought! O words with heavenly comfort fraught! What e’re I do, where e’re I be, still ‘tis God’s hand that leadeth me. He leadeth me, he leadeth, by his own hand he leadeth me. His faithful follower I would be, for by his hand he leadeth me” (He Leadeth Me, The Hymnal, 338).

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"One Thing I Ask"

One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple (Psalm 27: 4).

You will fill me with joy in your presence (Psalm 16: 11).

If you were to ask one thing of God, what would it be?

Take your time. You’ve got one shot. We’ve all played some version of the three wishes game, but the stakes are much higher here. With God we don’t make wishes, we make petitions. And following the example of the Psalmist, we’re tying to determine the one thing we’re seeking most from God.

“One thing I ask . . . this is what I seek.”

Are you aching for answers to things you simply can’t understand? Would faith come easier if you could just get some kind of explanation for the tragedy that took someone you loved . . . a short list of reasons why some people are starving while others are glutted on affluence . . . some sliver of insight into God’s will and purposes and why the life you have looks nothing like the one you used to dream of?

We’ve observed this week that the Psalms are full of questions. Hard questions. Sometimes a few answers would be nice. But is that really what we seek above all else?

Maybe you don’t want to ask about something, you want to ask God for something. Not something silly like a new car – but something that could profoundly change your life. Maybe you would ask God for a mate. You might ask God to stop the pain in your body that persists day after day and keeps you awake most nights. In these days, it might be a job – not for the money, but for the sense of waking up and having something to do that makes a difference in the world.

All of these could easily be the “one thing” we ask of the Lord. But none of those things are what we hear in Psalm 27:4. The Psalmist isn’t looking for answers and explanations and insights. The Psalmist isn’t asking for some thing that life is lacking.

The one thing that places at the top of the list, above anything and everything else, is more of God: Dwelling in God’s presence, beholding God’s beauty. The Psalmist’s greatest desire is nothing less than God’s presence.

Psalm 16:11 helps us understand that request. In God’s presence is fullness of joy and eternal pleasures. In other words, when you have God, you’ve got it all.

To seek God more than anything else doesn’t do away with our hard questions. But in our struggles to understand how life works we will be satisfied in the holy presence.

To seek God above all else doesn’t mean we no longer think about having meaningful work or getting married or being free of illness – but we know that those things can never really satisfy our souls like God can. There’s no substitute for God.

Now back to where we started. Back to the most important question we’ve considered all week long. What one thing are you asking of God today?

The Psalmist prayed, “Whom have I in heaven but you, and earth has nothing I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25). I struggle to pray those words, O Lord. My desires are pulled in so many directions and I am too often dissatisfied when I get what I think I want. Heal the desires of my heart so that my one great desire is to know you better and live fully in your presence. Amen.

Monday, July 13, 2009

"Whom Shall I Fear?"

The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? (Psalm 27:1)

Now it was their turn. What they had seen Jesus do, they were being told to do.

Jesus’ instructions must have been daunting to those disciples; they would heal all kinds of sickness; they would preach the good news of the kingdom; they would cast out demons; they would restore leprous skin to wholeness.

Along with the instructions, Jesus gave authority. He didn’t tell them to do something they couldn’t possibly do. He told them what to do and promised them the power to do it.

Their effectiveness would be closely connected to their faith, their willingness to trust and to risk. They were not to pack a bag or take money with them. No last minute ATM withdrawals. No backpacks with peanut butter and saltines and Vienna sausages. They would live in complete dependence, claiming nothing for themselves but the grace of God.

Authority to make a difference in the world thrives in a trusting heart.

And, according to Jesus, that same authority becomes a shriveled empty husk when fear is present. Jesus made this plain to those whom he called to whom he gave authority. Be on your guard. You will meet resistance. But don’t be afraid. Don’t fear those who can do nothing more than kill the body. They have no real power.

Fear will quench your power. Trust will feed it. (See Matthew 10:5-30).


Ours is a fearful age. We are eaten up with anxieties. In recent months our fears have been rooted in the economic crisis. These fears are not entirely unsubstantiated. People are really losing jobs and homes, and when this happens some measure of concern is perfectly understandable.

Nevertheless, the pervasive dis-ease in our land is hard to deny. We’re afraid for our children and the would be abductors and abusers that lurk in the most benign places.
We’re afraid of illnesses and words like “pandemic.” We know all too well now that we’re not immune from terrorists.

Psalm 27 asks a question that’s critical for our time. “Whom shall I fear?” The answer is implied: “I will fear no one.” Psalm 56 asks the same question with different words. “What can mortal man do to me?” Again: the answer is “nothing.”

Questions like these are intended to help us re-vision the realities around us. It’s not that the Psalmists never felt fear or anxiety, and is certainly not true that the Psalmists had no reason to be afraid. They felt fear and they had good reasons for being fearful.

But fear did not define reality for them. These words of prayer are a way of claiming that God stands at the center of all things, every threatening circumstance, every unnerving piece of news.

We need to pray these words because now it is our turn. Jesus sends us into this anxious world to do what he did and live as he lived. Don’t be afraid to love people. Don’t be afraid to offer blessing. Don’t be afraid to help. Don’t be afraid to speak of your faith. Fearful, anxious people are too busy stockpiling resources and building bomb-shelters to go into the world and change it.

What do you fear today? How does it hinder your walk with Jesus?

“Lo! The hosts of evil round us scorn thy Christ, assail his ways! From the fears that long have bound us, free our hearts to faith and praise. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days, for the living of these days.” (God of Grace and God of Glory, The Hymnbook, 358).

Saturday, July 11, 2009

"How Long?"

Lord . . . if you had been here my brother would not have died (John 11:21).

How long, O Lord? (Psalm 13:1)

People of faith are not people who have stopped asking questions, sleeping soundly at night with every riddle answered, every doubt removed, every tension eased. If deep faith means the end of hard questions, then faithful people are hard to find, even in the Bible.

The Psalms are full of questions. “No questions asked” may reflect something of the way God’s mercies are offered to us. But questions frequently characterize the way our prayers are offered to God.


Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. When Jesus finally arrived in Bethany his presence seemed an empty gesture to those who grieved, especially Lazarus’ sisters. Martha, not one to mince words, spoke what everyone else was probably thinking. “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”

Her words sound partly like a rebuke, partly like a statement of faith. But beneath the words there’s a question: Where were you when we needed you?

It’s a fair question. Earlier in the story John tells us that when Jesus had learned of Lazarus’ illness “he stayed where he was two more days” (John 11:6). That’s troubling to us. We’d like to see some urgency. We’d like to see some miracle working power being released on behalf of Jesus’ dying friend. Apparently Jesus healed someone he didn’t know from a distance by simply speaking a word. And yet, upon learning of his friend’s illness, Jesus lingers.

Why did Jesus linger? Where was the power, the life giving word? When Jesus finally shows up, four days of rot have been at work in the tomb’s darkness. “Where were you?” Martha’s asking what we all want to know. She’s asking what many of us have asked at some point in our lives.

A repeated question on the lips of the Psalmist is “how long?” That’s a familiar question to many people of faith because those who take God seriously often struggle to understand God’s timing. In Psalm 13 the question is asked four times in a psalm that is only six verses long.

The question reflects faith in that it assumes that God is present and doing something. The question eats at faith because it wonders exactly what God is doing and when it will make a difference. How long will it take me to find a job? How long will it take us to get pregnant? How long will I need chemo treatments? How long will this war last?

It seems to us that God lingers, and in some cases lingers long. And the lingering raises questions for us. But hard questions do not mean lack of faith. As Peter reminds us, God’s timing isn’t like ours. With God a day is a thousand years and a thousand years are a day. To ask “how long?” isn’t sin. In the Psalms, it’s prayer.

Is there something in your life that has caused you to pray “How long?”

Remind us today, O God, that what feels like neglect and delay is actually a divine plan. This is hard for us to understand – and so we are bold to offer our prayers and bring our questions before you. As we pray “how long?” make us strong in faith and grant us patient endurance until you arrive and bring new life, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Friday, July 10, 2009

No Questions Asked

As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him, for he knows how we are formed . . . (Psalm 103:13).

Last week I took my kids and two of their friends northward to experience the seething energies of the town of Cherry Log Georgia. Actually we were just north of Ellijay, not quite to Cherry Log. “What,” you might ask, “is in Cherry Log Georgia?” Not much. But there is a treasure up there, known to a few.

For years Fred Craddock taught preaching at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. When he retired he went north and began a ministry that does many different things under the umbrella of “The Craddock Center,” now headquartered in the booming metropolis of Cherry Log.

One of those things is the Story Express, a van full of books that makes forays into the mountain counties and gives books to children. That’s why I took my own kids, plus two, to Cherry Log. We had books for the Story Express. We also had the chance to receive visitors to the Express at the Gilmer County Food Bank. Kids could browse for books while their parents received groceries.

On the door of the Gilmer County Food bank I saw a small poster advertising free lunches during the week at a place called “Bread and Bowl.” The language of the poster caught my attention and evoked some thinking. It read something like this.

Lost your Job? Can’t pay bills? Worried about keeping your home?

We want to help during these difficult times.

We will be serving a FREE LUNCH every day from 12:00 noon to 1:30 pm


Psalm 103 rehearses the many ways that God is merciful to us. Those mercies come to us because of God’s compassion. The word compassion shows up three times in the NIV Bible, anchoring the center of the Psalm at verses 8 and 13.

The very word compassion carries the meaning of “suffering with” someone else, knowing what they are going through, entering into their experience and being moved to mercy.

I heard compassion in the words of the poster: “no questions asked.” When the Psalmist says that God forgives our sins and puts them as far from us as east is from west, I can almost see the words “no questions asked.” Of course, those words don’t appear in the Psalm, but they wouldn’t be out of place if they did.

There is an invitation in the words of Psalm. Our compassionate God receives us in our imperfect, flawed state. No questions asked; no need to offer explanations, no need to come up with excuses, no defense necessary.

This is strange to us. Silently, we do raise questions of others. Our own compassions fall far short of God’s. What’s more, many of us spend plenty of time explaining ourselves, making excuses, defending our actions or ideas. We expect to be grilled and questioned. But God doesn’t deal with us in that way.

God says, “No questions asked.” How does that impact how you will live today? And how would you be different if you were to say the same thing to others around you?

We give you thanks today, O God, for your great compassion; for the way you put our sins far from us. You know exactly what we are like and the weaknesses to which we are prone. Put them away from us, we pray, and make us bold to come to you freely, trusting in your great mercy. Amen.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

A Meditation on Psalm 19 and Jennifer Aniston

The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart (Psalm 19:8).

Lately she has smiled at me nearly every Sunday morning as I ride the Peachtree express from the Cates parking lot to the church welcome center.

She’s not actually smiling at me – but she’s definitely smiling in my direction and it sure looks like she’s smiling at me. Jennifer Aniston’s face is magnified and majestic on a billboard on Roswell Road just south of East Andrews. Every Sunday morning our bus sits for few moments at the red light where Roswell and East Andrews meet. Look to the right, and there’s Jennifer.

The actual message of the billboard is very short and somewhat vague. The product is some kind of bottled water. The water part of the billboard is eclipsed by Jennifer’s hard to ignore face. Maybe that’s the intent. Create a connection in the mind between the compelling image and the product.

The thing about a billboard is that it’s out there for everyone to see. The billboard is aimed at the entire city of Atlanta, or at least that significant part of the population that drives south on Roswell Road. To see the billboard and enjoy the face of Jennifer, all you have to do is look up. If you’re driving you may need to look quickly and perhaps several times – but it’s there for free. Just glance up and there it is.

As is obvious by now, my attention is often drawn to the billboard while sitting at the red light. And while it’s nice to see Jennifer smiling in my general direction I have no expectation that I will ever have a conversation with Jennifer Aniston. I’m not hoping that someday she’ll actually talk to me about bottled water or anything else.

On the billboard there’s a message for me and anyone who will pay attention. But a message is not a conversation. The conversation will never happen. I can live with that.

The first six verses of Psalm 19 are like a billboard that God has placed in the heavens. The skies are proclaiming a message that goes out to the ends of the world, day and night. This message is for everyone. All we have to do is look up, pay attention, take it in.

But Psalm 19 does not end at verse six. The Psalm continues and makes a dramatic shift. The same God of whom the heavens speak also wants to speak personally to you. That kind of speaking comes to us through a different medium. God’s ways and will are revealed most clearly in the written text of God’s word. The Psalmist speaks of God’s law, statutes and precepts.

Plenty of people enjoy Jennifer Aniston on a billboard but never plan to actually hear her voice or speak directly to her. Sadly, plenty of people deal with God in the same way. They enjoy the heavens, especially when they see those heavens spanning the ocean’s horizon or forming mist over mountain peaks. It’s not hard to stand and gaze at the skies and be moved in some kid of vague way that feels good. Some describe this as a “spiritual” experience.

But the God revealed in the heavens and skies very much wants to say something to you. God has a message for your life, a word of hope for your struggles, a word of forgiveness for your failures, a word of acceptance for the person you are right now. To hear this message will require something more than a walk on the beach. These words are in God’s book. When you pick up a bible, do so with the expectation that God has a word for you. That’s a conversation we can’t live without.

Have you heard God speak personally to you through the written words of the Bible?

It staggers our minds, O God, that you wish to speak with us in ways that are personal and direct, not vague and abstract. Forgive our neglect of your written words. Give us an appetite for your scripture. May the words written on the page become for us a living voice, we pray. Amen.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Good Heavens

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands (Psalm 19:1).

My wife occasionally accuses me of selective hearing, screening out messages that might be inconvenient or unpleasant or otherwise disrupt important endeavors like reading and napping. She may be right, but I maintain that most men are thus afflicted. This isn’t a deliberate inattentiveness. I never consciously choose to ignore my wife. But I’ll admit that there are times when I’m just not dialed in.

What is true of my domestic life seems to be equally true spiritually. The heavens are declaring the glory of God. The skies are making proclamation, pouring forth speech. This happens every day, all day long. And too often I’m not dialed in. As best I can tell I don’t deliberately ignore God or God’s voice. But for whatever reasons, I too easily miss what the heavens are declaring.

This wasn’t true two weeks ago. There’s a beach on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica called “Playa Bonita.” There I found it very easy to pay attention that what the heavens are always declaring. In Costa Rica this time of year the sun goes down between 6:00 and 6:30 p.m. Sunsets at Playa Bonita are astonishing. Large outcroppings of rock in the ocean collide with breaking waves and send curtains of sea spray into the air against the canvass of a distant sky that mingles hues of orange and blue.

The skies proclaim the work of his hands. No doubt about it. And at Playa Bonita I can actually hear what they are saying. The skies make proclamation, and we speak back in prayer. The conversation comes naturally at places like that.

But this week I’m back in Marietta, Georgia. The heavens are still declaring and the skies are on broadcast as well, but my selective hearing issues are showing up again. Why is that?


Psalm 19 says that the heavens are like a tent for the sun, a massive canopy in which the sun makes a daily course from one end of the earth to the other. I think we all recognize that the Psalmist didn’t write these words as an essay in astronomy. What we’re reading is more poetry than lecture. But it seems plain enough that the skies that cover the Pacific Ocean at Playa Bonita and the skies that hover over Marietta are part of something singular and whole.

Every day the heavens make their declaration, and far too often I move through my days deaf to their words. I heard them loud and clear a couple of weeks ago on a beach far away – but most of my days are lived here, bordered by Roswell Road and the 120 loop. Why is it harder to listen to God in this place?

The heavens declare and the skies proclaim. But the skies around us here are cluttered, interrupted by massive towers that speak to the glory of corporate America. Added to that, the skies around this place are so familiar. What they proclaim starts sound like blah blah blah. And maybe we need to admit that we rarely look at these skies anyway. Our gaze is held by computer screens, the traffic bearing down on us in the rear view mirror, the pile of post-camp laundry or the grass that needs mowing.

For the rest of this week we’ll spend some time with Psalm 19 and let it tutor us in effective listening skills. God is never at a loss for words; every day “pours forth speech.” Don’t miss a word.

Where are you best able to hear what the heavens declare and the skies proclaim?

Gracious God, we want to be attentive to your voice in all places. We want to see your glory in the skies over beaches and mountains and distant places, as well as in the heavens that cover our own backyards. Teach us to listen. Help us to pay attention to the message being proclaimed all around us every day, we pray. Amen.