Ep.303: Time and Chance Happen to Them All.

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

Last week, we looked at Ecclesiastes and the meaning of chess. To humans, chess is a game. To a computer, it’s just another program. The author of Ecclesiastes programmed himself for maximum wisdom, pleasure, and wealth. But nothing satisfied. 

Part of his disappointment was discovering that time disintegrates what we build and the randomness of life sucks the joy out of success. 

The author says, “I hated all the things I toiled for under the sun, because I have to leave them to someone. Who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet, they will control the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill.” 

Picture the writer building his legacy: houses and land, lucrative investments, a book on his habits of success. But how long will his legacy last? What if some fool takes over his business, and runs it into the ground? His book may be briefly popular, but it will soon go into the bargain bin, followed shortly by the blue recycling bag. 

The author feels pain at life’s randomness, the chances he can’t control, the unexpected events that make or break his plans. Ecclesiastes says:
    The race is not to the swift
      nor the battle to the strong,
    nor does food come to the wise
      or wealth to the brilliant
      or favor to the learned;
    but time and chance happen to them all (Eccl 9:11).

Yes! There’s the element of dumb luck that contributes to everyone’s outcomes.

The author also says,
  Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come:
      As fish are caught in a cruel net,
            or birds are taken in a snare,
      so people are trapped by evil times
            that fall unexpectedly upon them (Eccl 9:12).

People sit long hours at gambling tables, hoping time and chance will favor them. But it’s not only gamblers who roll the dice. Life itself is a gamble. 

Our best laid plans run amuck. Amazon and Netflix stock surged in two years of pandemic, and now they are falling down. Under Bush, the  Taliban were evicted from Afghanistan; now they’re back under Biden. A friend’s parents planned a lovely retirement–but one of them got Alzheimers. 

Time and chance happen to all of us. There are no hot tips in life’s horse race, no sure-fire medicines, no safe harbors for my finances. 

What to do? Should I factor luck and the clock into my life plan? Or is there a better way of going about living? 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we hoped you would control the randomness of the world for us, that you would stop the tsunamis and protect your people from war and make us free to serve you. But time and chance happen to us all. 

Teach us to be patient with ourselves, with others, with the world around us. Help us lose our overwhelming need to control. Help us go with the flow in good times and evil. 

Teach us how to live in this world you have given us. 

Amen. 

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

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.302: Ecclesiastes and the Meaning of Chess.

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

Today we continue our series on the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Last week, I questioned the New International Version’s translation which says, “Meaningless, meaningless, it’s all meaningless.” 

Today, let’s think about meaning by asking, What’s the meaning of chess? 

It was a big deal in 1997 when IBM’s Deep Blue chess program beat Garry Kasparov, the reigning world champion. It was a major victory for artificial intelligence, and a huge win for IBM’s technical skills. But many chess players resented IBM’s arrogant intrusion into their favorite game because chess is a human game. The goal isn’t just to capture the opposing army. If all I want is to sacrifice pawns and kill the king, I can pitch my opponent’s pieces in the fire. 

Chess is a game, a microcosm of human civilization and war. It evokes the emotions of a thousand years of knights and castles, of medieval bishops, queens, and kings. Chess asks me, “Am I a pawn in this game of life? Will the church and politicians and army sacrifice me for their bigger aims?” 

Chess is recreation, a mental challenge, a battle of wits, an opportunity to develop skill. It is also a spectator sport. 

Computers that play chess don’t understand that. They have no memories of love and war, of victory and defeat. They just process information and execute a programmed strategy. 

Computer chess reminds me of a satellite navigation unit I had. Whenever I made a wrong turn the unit said with an annoyed tone, “Recalculating, recalculating.” I was on a journey, but my GPS wasn’t enjoying the trip. All it cared about was the math. 

So what does this have to do with Ecclesiastes and meaninglessness? 

The author of Ecclesiastes applied his “mathematical” mind, his computer mind, to the search for meaning. 

He tried gaining wisdom. But he discovered that “In much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge increases pain” (1:17-18). 

He tried maximum pleasure: wine, music, dancing, women. But he found no lasting satisfaction, no meaning there (2:1-9). 

He became obscenely wealthy and he used his money to build houses and vineyards and gardens and parks (2:4-7). But his life continued to fail the test of meaning.  

The problem was that the author played life like a computer program plays chess, like my GPS goes on a journey. He defined the goal played to win, but when he did, he didn’t know what the game meant. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we are players in this game of life. How often we have computed that better health, more money, better social connections, or more wisdom would give us a richer, fuller life. And maybe, just maybe, answer our nagging questions about meaning. 

But now we confess with the author of Ecclesiastes that a meaningful life is not gained by strategy and design. As the author discovered, all our accomplishments and all our experiences can leave us empty and dissatisfied.

Teach us then the true source of meaning. 

Amen. 

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

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.301: Meaningless?

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

When I was growing up, I was fascinated by the opening words in Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” 

That was the King James Version. Today’s New International Version puts it, “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.” 

That’s a harsh philosophy of life. Everything is meaningless? Does the Bible really teach that nihilistic philosophy?

One graduation requirement at my Christian high school was to preach a ten-minute sermon in chapel. I wasn’t an active Christian back then, but I did want to graduate, so preaching the senior sermon presented a dilemma. 

I solved the problem by taking my theme from Ecclesiastes. As I followed the author through his search for meaning in work, in wealth, in leisure, and in learning, I agreed with him that, yes, it was all rather meaningless. Today, as a committed Christain, still searching for meaning, that theme of Ecclesiastes keeps coming back. 

These days, I’m pretty sure I pointed my senior sermon in the wrong direction. The Hebrew word for meaningless is better translated as vapor or breath. 

The author is not asserting that everything is meaningless, but that everything is transient, unsubstantial, passing. Like smoke and vapor. Like the morning mist the sun disperses. 

I worked in computing for 28 years at Alberta Motor Association, on three different membership systems. The first was a home-built system we retired before the year 2000; the second was leased from a vendor, and the third was an off-the-shelf system that morphed into an expensive custom development. And now that I’m retired, they’re replacing that system too.  

That’s what Ecclesiastes tells me. It’s smoke: three decades on transient computer systems. It’s vapor: no one remembers me or the systems I supported. 

Ecclesiastes says the same about other parts of life. Years of scrimping and saving built my small investment portfolio. But what will happen to my savings? Will the stock market crash, will inflation chew them up, will health expenses deplete them? My health insurance contract covers the first $200,000 of lifetime medical expenses. After that, they’re finished with me. I can solve my own problems. 

That too is part of Ecclesiastes. Success is not guaranteed in the things we do. And as we do them, we grow old and die and leave it all behind. Like smoke in the wind or mist on the water. 

Fortunately, that’s not the whole message of Ecclesiastes. Stay tuned to hear more of the story next time. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we pray with the poet of Psalm 90:
  The length of our days is seventy years,
      or eighty if we have the strength,
      yet their span is but trouble and sorrow,
      for they quickly pass and we fly away (v. 10). 

Our wealth and health and pleasures fall under the shadow of age. We bury the friends of our youth, and our zest for life diminishes. O Lord, draw us closer to you and to those we love and to the home you are preparing for us. 

Amen. 

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

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.300: God Suffers.

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

This is our last episode on the problem of evil. Today we consider our suffering God. 

My daughter, talking to Muslim, asked, , “Would Allah come to earth, be born in a stable, and grow up as a human?” 

“Never,” was the response. “Allah is great. There’s poop and dirt in a stable . He wouldn’t become a human baby.” 

This points to a difference between Islam and Christianity. The Christian God became human in Jesus. He got down and dirty. He washed his disciples’ feet. He gave himself up to torture and suffering and death. 

Jesus is key to answering the question of evil and suffering. God, not content to be a distant and dispassionate observer of his hurting world, got personally involved in the mess through Jesus. He shared his life with sinners. He handled money inscribed by Caesar.  He suffered and died under Pontius Pilate.  

In every part of the Bible, God suffers. Before the flood, “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become. . . . He regretted making humans. His heart was deeply troubled” (Genesis 6:5-6). 

Jesus said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks . . . but you were not willing” (Mat 23:37). 

God was grieved by human violence and sin, by rejection of his love. But his suffering went further. On the cross, Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, felt that God had stopped being with him. And then he died.

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we lay all the world’s evil and suffering at Jesus’ cross. Wars, torture, endless diseases, petty sins of petty people, genocides of tyrants. Is there room for all of this at the cross? 

Thomas Aquinas thought so when he wrote: 
     Bathe me, Jesu Lord, in what thy bosom ran–
     Blood whereof a single drop has power to win
     All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.
(Adore Te Devote, trans. Gerard Manley Hopkins)

“All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.” Yes, the cross is big enough and strong enough to bear the sin and suffering of the world.

So we bring the problem of evil and suffering to you, our God, and to Jesus on the cross. Not asking why you permit it, not raging against injustice, not trying to fathom your logic. 

We come as sufferers who find in Jesus a fellow sufferer. The crosses we bear find meaning in his cross. Our sins are washed in the river of his pain. Our diseases are healed in the flow of his blood. In our death, we hope in his death and resurrection.

With the dying thief who shared his last day with Jesus we say, “Remember us when you come into your kingdom.”

Amen. 

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

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.299: Causes and Cure of Suffering.

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

For our fifth episode on the problem of evil, we ask, “What might help people who suffer?”  

Scripture is full of sufferers and those who helped them. Let’s look at three. 

Job, the second most famous sufferer in the Bible, had comforters who tried helping him with theology. They said, “God rewards good people. God punishes bad people. If you’re suffering, you must be bad.  Confess your sin! Change your ways.” 

When Jesus met a blind man, the disciples asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Their mindset for dealing with suffering was, “Let’s find someone to blame.” 

When Jonah and shipmates were terrified in a huge storm, Jonah provided the solution: “Throw me overboard!” he said, giving another helpful model for managing suffering. 

How often, as in these stories, comforters don’t comfort and sufferers aren’t helped. God rebuked Job’s friends, telling them their favorite theology was wrong. Jesus squashed the disciples’ blame-game by telling them neither the blind man nor his parents were at fault. Throwing someone overboard, a strategy much favored by politicians today, solved the sailors’ problem. But scripture doesn’t elevate this solution to a preferred model for helping sufferers. 

However, the Bible does offer some helpful suggestions for sufferers and those who comfort them.

First, scripture points out that suffering has many causes. 

Jonah’s storm was a consequence for his disobedience. Job’s troubles were initiated by Satan to resolve an argument with God. Jesus said the man’s blindness wasn’t because someone did something bad–it was an opportunity for God to show up and do something good! Yes, suffering has many causes. Don’t trust simple explanations that suggest only one cause or one solution for suffering. 

Second, scripture shows various ways to deal with suffering. 

Job, for example, found it helpful to shout angrily against his comforters and God. Suffering helped Jonah think clearly about obeying God. Jesus, the Bible’s most famous sufferer, patiently endured torture, crucifixion, and death. Paul told us to rejoice in our sufferings, because they teach us to hope in the future God has for us (Rom 5).

Those are some of the options for dealing with suffering. So don’t trust those who have only one strategy and one message for everyone who suffers. 

Third, scripture discourages us from making unkind theological comments on other people’s suffering. Job’s comforters made things worse by accusing him of sin. Jesus’ tormentors said, “He saved others, himself he cannot save”; but they had no clue about the cause of his suffering, or what kind of help he needed. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we do not understand the causes and cure of suffering. Yet, we believe you are present with all who suffer.  

Teach us, like Jonah, to take responsibility for our actions and to reverse our bad decisions. 

Teach us like Job, to rage at injustice and evil, and to hear your voice in the storm. 

Teach us to be like Jesus, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame. 

O father, lead us through the thorns that infest our world, through the pain around us, through the evil within us, until we love you truly and follow you faithfully. Bring us at last to that holy place where you banish suffering forever, and dry our tears, and cure our fears.  

Amen. 

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

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.298: Famine, Crucifixion, and Cancer.

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

This is our fourth episode on the problem of evil, as we ask, “Why does a loving and powerful God permit so much evil in the world?” 

Today we look at Joseph in the Old Testament. His father Jacob had 12 sons by two wives and two slaves, creating a complicated family dynamic. Joseph, son number 11, was his father’s favorite, and his brothers’ least favorite.

Once, when the ten older brothers were herding sheep, Jacob sent Joseph to see how they were doing. They were doing just fine without Joseph, so they sold him into slavery in Egypt, dipped his coat in goat’s blood, and took it to their father, saying, “Is this your son’s coat?” Father Jacob was devastated.

In Egypt, Joseph suffered through slavery, trumped up criminal charges, and prison, until he was vindicated and promoted to ruler of Egypt, second in command to Pharaoh. He helped his big boss prepare Egypt for seven years of famine. 

During the famine, Joseph’s 10 older brothers came from their starving home in Canaan to buy food in Egypt. Joseph recognized them, but they didn’t recognize him. Joseph tested them until he was confident they regretted treating him badly. Then he held a lost-brother reveal party, and invited them to emigrate to Egypt so he could look after them.  

Years later, when father Jacob died, the ten were afraid Joseph would finally execute revenge on them for selling him into slavery. But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God meant it for good, to save many lives” (Gen. 50:24). God was at work in the brother’s evil plans, using them as part of his good plan.

In the Book of Acts, Peter addresses a similar theme. He says to the Israelites, “Jesus was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge, and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to a cross” (Acts 2:23). It’s like Joseph told his brothers: “You executed evil on your victim, but God incorporated even your evil actions in his good plan.” 

When Kate Bowler, a Duke University professor, was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer, she wrote the book, Everything Happens for a Reason: and Other Lies I’ve Loved (United States: Random House, 2019). The title reminds me of the version of Romans 8:28 I memorized as a child: “All things work together for good to those who love God.”  A better translation is: “In all things, God works for the good of those who love him.” It’s not “everything” that is working together for good. Rather, God is the active agent, he is working in everything–in Joseph’s slavery, in Kate Bowler’s cancer, even in Jesus’ crucifixion. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we have said many words we wish we could unsay. We have done many deeds we wish we could undo. We have seen pictures we would unsee and read books we would unread. 

But you are a God who works in everything. You worked through the death threats of Joseph’s brothers, through the trumped up charges and execution of Jesus, through Kate Bowler’s battle with cancer. 

Help us believe that you are at work in our lives and our world. Work through the violence of war. Work through the untimely deaths of children. Work through the machinations of politicians and the consumerism of society and the lies of conspiracy theories. O God, bring about your own conspiracy, a conspiracy of love and justice and salvation. 

Amen. 

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

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.297: How Small Is Your God?

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

This is our third episode on the problem of evil. If God is powerful and loving, why is there so much evil? Isn’t he powerful enough to stop evil? Is he not loving enough to care?

American author, apologist, and theologian Timothy Keller suggests these questions are a poor place to begin (Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, chapter 4). In our modern, rational, skeptical way of thinking, he says, , the questions play to preconceived biases rather than open inquiry. 

During coffee hour at church a while back, a man told me he didn’t believe in God. Why, I asked. Because a loving and powerful God would never permit the evil we see all around us. I simply said: “So if you were God, you’d run things differently. You’d stop the evil and spread some love around.” 

I continued,“It’s clear that God’s program sure isn’t the one you’d run. Have you read the Bible to see if God tells us what his program is? And why it might be different than yours?” 

Timothy Keller suggests that the question of God’s love and power plays better with a more rounded view of God. Certainly, God is powerful and loving, but he is also glorious, majestic, wise, without beginning or end, creator and sustainer of all things. He is a much more active and complex character than the abstract and philosophical being posited in the question, “If God is loving and powerful . . .” 

A blogger I read recently provided a list of ways to think (Lewis, Bob. “Thinking about Thinking.” Web blog post. IS Survivor Publishing. 21 March 2022. Accessed 23 March 2022 at https://issurvivor.com/2022/03/21/thinking-about-thinking/). One of his methods is “Plausibility Testing” which he describes as “Assessing whether an explanation passes the don’t-be-ridiculous test, keeping in mind that quantum physics doesn’t pass the test.” To a modern way of thinking and feeling, neither quantum physics nor God passes the don’t-be-ridiculous test, but perhaps both exist. And perhaps neither is easily explained. 

As a friend said, “If I can understand God’s thinking and his ways, he’s not much bigger than me. That’s not much of a God at all!” 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we have studied scripture and contemplated nature and analyzed history and  scrutinized people. We have found that only faith sees beyond the narrow rationalism of our culture. Only faith leads us out of out narrow prejudices to a wide appreciation of your world. Only faith questions a skeptical, despairing response to evil, and leads to hope and peace. 

Teach us the way of faith. Teach us to think and feel and live our faith, even when doubts assail and questions go unanswered. As the  apostle Paul said, “Where there are prophecies, they will cease. Where there tongues, they will be stilled. Where there is knowledge, it will pass away. And now remain these three: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:8, 13).

Amen. 

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

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.296: Free to do Evil.

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

Today we continue our series on the problem of evil, asking: If God is powerful and loving, why is there so much evil? Is he too weak to stop it? Or not loving enough to care? 

One popular answer is that God wanted to create people who would love him, and that love is only possible when people have free will. So when God gave Adam and Eve the world as their playground, he imposed a prohibition, a tree with forbidden fruit, to test their love and obedience.

Think about that.

The whole world? Now there’s a generous gift! But, as many of us have discovered, love is not measured in gifts given and received, but in relationship. Surely God didn’t think such a gift would make Adam and Eve love him fully and automatically. The story hints that God was working toward a relationship, like when he walked with them in the Garden. But it doesn’t read like a love story, with God wooing Adam and Eve into a  relationship of love.

And think about that prohibition. If I see a child running between parked cars into traffic, I don’t question whether I should violate her free will. I’ll grab her arm and pull her back. And then talk with her about safety. Her love may grow as she matures–if I create room for her to grow, by restraining her foolish childish impulses.

When Adam and Eve contemplated the forbidden fruit, couldn’t God have initiated a helpful conversation, saying: “Hey, if you meet a talking snake, watch out for bad advice. Let me show you a bit of the snake’s plan for a world of evil and death. That might not be the way you want to go.”

Do you think unrestrained freedom is necessary for love? Scripture says God is love. It also says he’s not free to lie, to break promises, or even be tempted by evil. Could he not have made humans in his image, free to learn and grow in love, without the long threat of evil hanging over the human race? 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, as we look at the horrors in our world, as Russia destroys Ukrainian cities, as thousands die and millions seek refuge, we ask, “Is human freedom worth that price? A few of us use our freedom to give you a small amount of love, while others use their freedom to kill and maim and destroy. 

Our father, perhaps we know less than we thought about freedom and slavery. Why did you give Adam and Eve a capability even you do not have–the capacity to be tempted by sin? Did they understand the consequences of their choice, or did they stumble inadvertently, as we so often do, into a labyrinth of evil? 

Our father, it’s a long way back home from where the world and its people have come. Be to us father and savior and God. Lead us and our world on that journey home, we pray.   

Amen. 

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

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.295: Two Great Evils.

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

Today, as we begin a short series on the problem of evil, consider two great evils that stalk our world: the forces of nature and human choice. 

We know the forces of nature randomly kill thousands in so-called “acts of God”–hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes. The insurance industry doesn’t like God’s name cluttering up their policies, so they call natural disasters “force majeure”–grand forces beyond human control, against which there is no insurance.

Other natural evils include starvation, pandemics, cancer, drought. Nature can be a hard master. 

What about the second great evil?  Human choice. Murders, wars, genocide, and accidents are everywhere. Illegal drugs rob people of health and hope. The threat of nuclear war casts a shadow on the world. Today the Doomsday Clock reads one-minute-and-forty-seconds to midnight for the human race.

Useful inventions create evil outcomes. The Wright brothers had a wonderful idea. Which inspired the military to create new forms of violence and destruction. Three years ago, that semi truck broadsided a Saskatchewan hockey bus, killing 16 and injuring 13. 

This is “The Problem of Evil”. If God is loving and powerful, why doesn’t he stop the damage? Is our world his idea of reality TV? Doesn’t he care who gets injured or voted off the island? 

But suppose you don’t believe in God. Does that make things better? If all that exists is the universe as we know it, if only the fit survive, then there is no good or evil. It’s just the way things are. We are stuck with the fate nature assigns us. Complaining gets us nowhere. 

If there is no God and nature sends storms and earthquakes, how would you know it’s bad when they kill people? 

If wolves eat lambs and humans are genocidal, what’s the evil when the fit survive and the weak are removed from the gene pool?

My answer is that of Hamlet–a deep human feeling that something is rotten in the State of Denmark. I want to be free to live my best life. I want my family protected from murderers and thieves, from floods and famine and disease. The world should be safe and friendly, not a fight for survival. 

That feeling leads me past nature’s cruelty and human evil to God. Why? Because in him I see a standard of right and wrong, a statement of good and evil. I don’t find them anywhere else. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we call it the problem of evil. But it’s really the problem of good and evil, because so much of the world you created is good. I rejoice when dawn colors the sky in pinks and purples; I am amazed at mountains, stark against the clouds; I am astonished by the moon and stars at night. 

Human goodness is wonderful too. Some people seek justice for the oppressed, homes for the homeless, food for the hungry. Human ingenuity and science have conquered plagues, smallpox, and polio.

Wherever we look good and evil are present together: in nature, in civilization, in culture and politics and people. Give us eyes to see and believe what is good, hearts to discern and resist what is evil. In our short lifetime may we come to know you, and to believe that you alone are good. 

Amen. 

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

Ep.294: What Have We Learned from the Psalms?

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

Three years ago in January I prayed Psalm 1, the beginning of a project to pray each of the psalms. Last week I arrived at the end, Psalm 150. That makes three years praying a psalm a week, with time off for holidays, vacations, and other excuses. 

Now that I’m done, let’s reflect. What have we seen in the psalms? How have they impacted us?

The first thing I notice is that these ancient poems are as current as Google News.Three thousand years ago the poets were writing headlines for today, complete with chaos, violence, disaster, corrupt politicians, war, and pandemics. The genius of the psalms translates human experience into poetry rather than focusing on specific events. Google News supplies the details of today’s disasters, but the psalms describe the experiences and emotions that disasters and successes evoke whenever they occur. The names and faces change, but the news stays the same.

Another striking feature of the psalms is the backdrop of darkness and evil. When I started this project in 2019, I expected to find more praise, more optimism. But the psalms give as much attention to darkness as to light, to difficulty as to ease, to complaint as to praise. But they don’t paint a static picture of gloom. Usually, the poet pushes through the darkness to light. Perhaps then, as now, joy and hope are hard-won attitudes, rewards for struggling against doubt and despair. 

The Harper-Collins Book of Prayers is 400 pages of prayers by 200 authors spanning 3000 years. (Robert Van de Weyer, ed. Castle Books: Edison, New Jersey, 1997) One small section of prayers stands out to me above all the others. It is a selection of psalms. When I read Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I was taken aback by its rawness, its power, and eloquence. I thought, “That’s why the psalms are in the Bible. They speak more simply and powerfully than thousands of prayers from lifetimes of experience.” 

The psalms also tap into my emotions. I tend to live stoically, soldiering on through thick and thin, consulting my will, not my emotions. When I am tense and annoyed, my family knows it long before I do. The psalms teach me that emotions are crucial in my relationship with God and others. Love is not just behavior, it is a feeling. It is affection, it wishes others well, it informs our relationships, it desires the best for others. 

But the scary part of emotions is that I don’t get to choose what I want to feel. If I lift the trap door and peer into the root cellar of my feelings—the whole crowd of them come jostling to the light, threatening to overwhelm me. What can I do with all that anger and love, the sadness and gladness, the feeling that God has abandoned me or the feeling that he is present? The psalms teach me to receive and feel and express each emotion to God. Perhaps when the psalms have done their work in me, I will be transformed from a soldier trudging through endless twilight to a dancer and singer greeting dawn in the mountains, singing dirges in the valleys, awake to the full range of human emotion. 

And finally, I have been surprised at how often the psalms criticize God–he’s not listening, he’s not helping, he’s sleeping. He’s not living up to his reputation for love and faithfulness, he’s abandoning the righteous, he’s not punishing evil. The poets have many complaints and they deal with them by complaining–complaining to God! This is faith at work, bringing all of life to God, reminding him of our need, calling him to exercise his love and faithfulness, waiting to see what he will do.  

In Hebrew, the Book of Psalms is titled “Songs of Praise.” I have wondered about that title, since so much of the book is anything but praise. But now, I like it. The poems and prayers and songs lead me from darkness to light, through despair to hope, through doubt into joyous faith. They are songs of praise.

Let’s pray. 

Our father, in our need, in our pain and joy, you are there for us in the psalms. You shelter us under your wings. You lead us to green pastures. You walk with us through the valley of shadows. You are our king, bringing justice and righteousness. 

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

Amen.

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