Ep.175: Psalm 77: Memories.

Hello. I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray with Me”. 

Do you ever have sleepless nights, lying awake and worrying about everything that’s going wrong? In Psalm 77, the poet recounts his sleepless night, full of worry and distress and desperate cries to God for help. 

He tells us three things he remembered that night. 

First, he says, “I remembered you, God, and I groaned.” No comfort there! He complains to God,
    You kept me from falling asleep,
      I was too troubled to speak (v. 3). 

Thinking about God only increased the poet’s discomfort and distress. Was God present and helpful in his sleepless night? No. Did God sooth his anxiety and send him sleep? No. It seemed to the poet that God was part of the problem, not part of the solution. All the poet could do was lie in bed and groan.

The second thing the poet remembers is when he used to sing songs in the night (v. 6). Night was not always a terror to him. He remembers a singing God’s praises at night. Back then, God was near, he warmed the poet’s heart and lifted his spirits. But that’s not happening any more. Instead of finding comfort in those happy memories, the poet uses them as fuel for despair, asking:
    Will the Lord now reject for ever?
        Will he never show his favour again?
      Has his unfailing love vanished completely?
        Has his promise failed for all time? (vv. 7-8).

Like the poet, how we use good memories is a choice. We can use them to praise the “good old days” and to complain that it’s not so good today. We can remember amazing answers to prayer, and resent God’s silence and absence today.  We can remember loving fellowship with God, and become bitter that he ignores us now. 

The poet soon tires of asking unanswerable questions about where God disappeared to, and he moves on to the third thing he remembers. He says,
    Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
      the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.
    I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
      yes, I will remember his miracles of long ago.” 

Then he recounts how God freed Israel from Egypt, how he parted the Red Sea to save them from Pharaoh’s army, and how he gave them the ten commandments at Mt. Sinai with powerful signs of thunder and lightning.  

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we often use our memories in the same way the poet used his. 

Sometimes when we lie sleepless at night, we groan when we wonder why you don’t do more about evil. Why are our lives so anxious. Why our health fails. Why those we love are in danger.

Sometimes even the memory of past joys feeds present despair. We remember when we loved to pray, when newfound faith filled us with joy, when hope lifted us out of depression, when we fell in love with you. But where are you now, God? The night is dark, and you do not light it up. It is filled with oppressive silence, and you do not speak. Have you forgotten that you love us? Have you rejected us forever? 

And finally, with the poet, we choose a different way of responding to our memories. We choose to use them as building blocks of hope. We remember the dry summers when you sent rain, and we trust you will do that again. We remember the gladness we had in hearing your word, and we trust you will speak to us again. We remember your power helping us conquer sin and sickness, and we trust you to bring us through this long night of despair. 

With the poet we remember that:
    You led your people like a flock,
      by the hand of Moses and Aaron (v. 20). 

Yes, God, you are a shepherd. We are the flock. Be our shepherd in the long dark nights of our lives.

Amen.

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.

Ep.174: What to Do When the King Goes Away.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

Jesus told this story in Luke 19: 

A nobleman went away to have himself appointed king. Some of his subjects who hated him sent a delegation saying, “Please don’t make him king!” Before he left, the nobleman gave ten servants one mina each (perhaps $30,000 in today’s money), and told them to put it to work while he was away.

When he received his promotion and came back as king, he asked the servants to report how they’d used his money. The first had turned one mina into ten; the next turned his mina into five. The king praised them for being faithful and made them rulers in his kingdom.

A third servant reported, “I was afraid of you, because you are a hard master. You take out what you did not put in and you reap what you did not sow. So I stored your mina under my mattress, and here it is safe and sound!” 

The master replied, “If you knew I’m like that you should at least have put the money in a bank account to earn interest. Give this servant’s mina to the one who has ten.” 

Then he said, “By the way, all those people who didn’t want me to be king–execute them right now.” 

I think the point of this story is that the servants had to make a difficult choice in a dangerous political situation. If their master became king, they sure wanted to be on his side; but if his opposition successfully blocked his appointment, it would be better to side with them. What to do?

Clearly, the best option was to lie low and see who wins. If the servants openly traded their money in the nobleman’s name, it would be obvious to the haters and complainers whose side they were on. Safer to stick the money under a mattress until the political dust settles. 

So the master’s invitation was not simply to engage in trade and make money; it was an invitation to trust him rather than his opposition, to work openly on his behalf in an uncertain political and economic climate, to cast their lot with him when he was hated and absent. 

When the nobleman returned as king, he did not praise the servants for being successful and making lots of money. He praised them for being faithful, for being true to him when he was away, for declaring their loyalty to him through the political and economic storm. 

Let’s pray. 

Jesus, it’s been a long time since you left to get yourself appointed king. In your absence, the world has been wracked with political and economic chaos, with religious wars, with rulers who would crucify you again if they could. We don’t see much evidence that your petition to become king has been granted. Perhaps we should play it safe, hide our allegiance to you, appear more accommodating to those who hate you.

But you are our Lord. Thank you for trusting us in your absence. We renew our allegiance to you alone, we support your cause, we trade openly in your name. 
    Though we have not seen you,
      we love you,
    And though we do not see you now,
      we believe in you,
      and are filled with joy inexpressible and full of glory
       for we are receiving the goal of our faith,
      the salvation of our souls (1 Peter 1:8-9).

In your absence, Jesus, we feel your presence within us. In your silence, we have heard your voice in our hearts. In your slowness to return, we have felt the gathering storm of your purpose. Grant us patience to wait and work.

And come quickly, Lord Jesus, to declare yourself openly as king.       

Amen. 

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”. 

Note: For this interpretation of the parable see Bailey, Kenneth E. The Presbyterian Outlook (April 2001). Online at https://pres-outlook.org/2001/04/capitalism-and-the-parable-of-the-talents/

Ep.173: Psalm 76: Warrior God.

Hello. I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray with Me”. 

Psalm 76 is a hymn of praise to God, the great warrior. Today, instead of following the poet into a prayer that asks God to be our warrior, let’s reflect on the topic of war as the Bible presents it.

The theme of killing to solve relationship problems surfaces in the first book of the Bible. After Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden of Eden, they had two sons. Cain, the elder, felt God was showing favoritism to Abel, his younger brother. Cain’s solution was to kill Abel. Today, individuals and nations still use this approach to address difficult relationships. 

Much of the Old Testament details the Israelite conquest of Canaan, the Promised Land. The Bible describes the conquest not as a “holy war” or “genocide”, but as a “divine war”, in which God demonstrates his power against false and evil gods to establish worship of the one true God. This is why the psalms celebrate God’s victory over evil and idolatry, and urge God into further battles. (See Thomas, Heath. The Old Testament, “Holy War” and Christian Morality. Blog post, 21 November 2011 at https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/the-old-testament-holy-war-and-christian-morality/).

But when God’s chosen nation, Israel, fell into idolatry, God showed that he is no respecter of nations. He sent  warring nations against Israel to expose and correct their errors. And what of Israel today? Does God protect them as his chosen nation? Or is Israel balanced on a sharp edge of violence and corrupt politics, as their ancestors were when God decreed the Babylonian exile? 

In the New Testament, Jesus and Paul are realists about war. The Israel they lived in was conquered and occupied by Rome. Using a battle metaphor, Jesus said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mat 10:34), and he predicted a future filled with “wars and rumors of wars” (Mat 24:6). Paul told Timothy to “fight the battle well” (1 Tim 1:18). In the book of Revelation, John had a vision of “divine war” at Armageddon at the end of time, when God will attack and destroy the enemies of his persecuted and oppressed people (Revelation 16).

I make three comments on war in the Bible

  1. First, wars and killing are pervasive in biblical stories and imagery. Just as they are in human history, for as long as people have written their stories and painted pictures on the walls of caves.
  2. Second God is present and active in human history, including wars. We’re fortunate that he doesn’t abandon us when things get messy and violent.
  3. Third, I find it helpful to interpret my life using metaphors of war. There are Goliaths within I must kill–hate and lies and envy. There are enemies in the world we must fight–injustice, poverty, and ignorance. Whether the psalms speak literally or metaphorically of war, they paint a true picture of the life we live and the God we serve.

Let’s pray, using some of the images from Psalm 76. 

    O God, you are radiant with light,
        more majestic than mountains rich with game.
    The valiant lie plundered,
        they sleep their last sleep;
    not one of the warriors
        can lift his hand.
    At your rebuke, God of Jacob,
        both horse and chariot lie still (vv. 4-6). 

O God, we have caught a vision of your radiant light, more majestic than mountains. As we journey, stumbling in darkness toward this vision, we encounter enemies everywhere. The world and our own hearts are rampant with prejudice, with lust, with pettiness and anger. As you waged divine war on behalf of Israel, so wage divine war in our lives. Lay waste the enemies of our souls, rebuke  them until horse and chariot lie still, until evil sleeps its last sleep. 

  You, God rose up to judge,
    to save all the afflicted of the land.
  Surely your wrath against mankind brings you praise,
    and the survivors of your wrath are restrained.

You are a God to be feared and obeyed, because nothing stops your plan to bring righteousness and justice and peace. The violent will be deposed, the unjust punished, and the wicked rebuked. O God, cleanse us from unrighteousness, purge the violence from our hearts, that we may greet you with joy and not with fear when you come. 

Amen.

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.

Ep.172: Bridesmaids, Wise and Foolish.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

In Matthew 24, Jesus tells a story about ten bridesmaids, waiting at the groom’s house for him to bring his bride to the wedding. When they found the bride, the groom’s companions would parade the bride and groom through town and country on their way home, choosing the route for friendly social impact instead of a carefully scheduled arrival. 

While this was happening, the bridesmaids talked themselves out, grew tired of waiting, and fell asleep. At midnight someone shouted, “The groom is coming!” The bridesmaids rushed to prepare their lamps, but only five of them, the wise ones, had enough oil. The other five said, “Hey, can you loan us some oil?” But the wise ones said, “We only have enough for ourselves.” 

While the five rushed out to buy oil, the bride and the groom arrived, started the party, and locked the door. When the five returned they knocked and said, “Please let us in.” But the groom replied, “Sorry, I don’t know you” and left them out in the night. 

Here are some observations on this story. 

First, it’s a story for our place in history. We are the bridesmaids, waiting for Jesus to return. But two thousand years and seventy generations of Christians later, there’s still no sign of his coming. Perhaps we need extra oil for our lamps.  

Second, all ten bridesmaids fell asleep, so in this parable, the point isn’t staying awake and watching. Jesus called some “foolish”, not because they slept, but because they didn’t carry extra oil to keep their lamps lit in case the party was delayed. Were they supposed to predict an unexpected delay and prepare for it?

Third, what does it mean for me to be waiting with a lamp, carrying extra oil in case the party is delayed? It’s an odd metaphor to layer onto my dog-walking, book-reading, video-producing, automobile-driving days. 

Fourth, When the five who went out to get oil returned to the party, why didn’t the groom open the door to them? Seems rather harsh. They solved their problem, didn’t they? They found the oil they needed. Did his “No” perhaps mean, “Not now. Come back tomorrow”? 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, it’s been a long wait for Jesus’ return, two thousand years and counting. In that time, the Roman empire has fallen, the nation of Israel has disappeared and come back again. The religion of Islam has risen to worldwide prominence. The Christian church has split into Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant branches. The human race has worked miracles with technology–miracles of communication, agricultural production, entertainment and weapons development. But we haven’t solved the problems of evil and poverty and prejudice and war. 

So we continue to wait for your kingdom, Jesus, for your return. We are not world-movers; we are your humble servants. But we receive into our small lives the gifts you offer in your stories. Here is our mustard seed of faith. Here is our pinch of yeast in the bread you are making. Here is our supply of oil in the lamp of faith. 

Teach us to be like the wise bridesmaids, keeping a constant supply of the oil of your kingdom. Renew and replenish the motivation of our lives, the preparation of our hearts, the deepness of our trust, that will keep our lamps burning, ready for the great wedding party you promised when at last you return.  

Amen. 

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”. 

Ep.171. Psalms. Half-time Break.

Hello. I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray with Me”. 

The recent episode on Psalm 75 marks the halfway point in our journey through the psalms. Today, we take a half-time break to reflect on what we’ve encountered.

One thing I notice is that these ancient psalms are as current as the Globe and Mail. Three thousand years ago, psalmists were already covering today’s news: chaos, violence, and disasters;  corrupt politicians, war, and pandemics. The genius of the psalms is translating human experience into poetry rather than focusing on specific events. The Globe and Mail supplies the details of today’s disasters, but the psalms describe the experiences and emotions shared by humans in all periods of history. Names and faces change, but the news stays the same.

Another striking feature of the first 75 psalms is the backdrop of darkness and evil. I expected more praise, more optimism. But so far, the psalms have given greater expression to darkness than light, to difficulty than ease, to complaint rather than praise. In most of the psalms, however, the poet pushes through the darkness to light and hope. Perhaps then, as now, joy and hope are hard-won attitudes, rewards for struggling against doubt and despair. 

Over the last three years I have read The Harper-Collins Book of Prayers (compiled by Robert Van de Weyer. Castle Books: Edison, New Jersey, 1997), 400 pages of prayers featuring 200 authors, spanning 3000 years of history, 

In this wide field of prayers, one section stood out to me like a mountain resign above a plain. It was a small selection of prayers from the Psalms, including Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I was taken aback by the rawness, the power, the eloquence of that psalm, compared with hundreds of lesser prayers in the book. I thought, “That’s why the psalms are in the Bible. They speak simply and powerfully, as few humans have ever been able to do.” 

Another way the psalms have impacted me is by putting me in touch with my emotions. I tend to live life stoically, soldiering on through thick and thin, consulting my will, not my emotions. When I am tense and annoyed and out of sorts, my family knows it long before I do. The psalms teach me that emotion is an important part of my relationship with God and others, that love is not just a discipline or a behavior, but an emotion that wishes people well, that wants to be in relationship, that desires the best for others. 

But the scary part of emotions is that I can’t choose what ones I want to feel. If I lift the trap door and peer into the depths where I store my feelings–my love and anger and gladness and sadness–the whole crowd of them come jostling toward the light and threaten to overwhelm me. The psalms encourage me to feel each emotion and express it to God. Perhaps when the psalms have done their best with me, I will no longer be a soldier trudging along in endless twilight. Perhaps I’ll be a dancer and singer greeting the mountains and the dawn with joy, singing dirges in the valleys at night, awake to the full range of human emotion. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, in all our need, in our pain and joy, you have been there for us in the psalms. You have been our guide, leading us to green pastures and walking with us through the valley of shadows. You have been our king, bringing justice and righteousness. You have been our mother, sheltering us under your wings. 

Thank you for the psalms, for the words they teach us to pray, for the images that furnish our imagination. Thank you for the journey they take us on, moving from fear into courage, from isolation into community, from darkness into the light of your presence. 

Amen.

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.