Ep.102: Raising the Dead.

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

In John 11, Lazarus was very sick, so his sisters sent word to Jesus. He said to his disciples, “This sickness won’t end in death. It is for God’s glory.” Then he ignored the sisters’ request for two days, and finally said to his disciples, “Ok. Time to head south to Judea.”

The disciples said, “Whoa! They tried to kill you last time you went there.” Jesus said, “Not a problem. And by the way, Lazarus has died. But good news! What happens will increase your faith.” 

The disciple Thomas said, “Let’s get on with it then. We can follow Jesus to Lazarus’ death, and his death, and probably ours too.” Not much faith there. 

When Jesus arrived in Judea, Lazarus’ sisters said to him, “If you had been here, our brother wouldn’t have died.” Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” And Jesus wept. Perhaps he wept for the sorrow of death, perhaps out of compassion for the sisters, perhaps he wept for the lack of faith everywhere he looked. 

Then he went to Lazarus’ grave, got them to roll the stone away from the entrance, and he said to the decomposing body, “Lazarus, come out.” And out he came, wrapped in linen grave clothes. 

When the Pharisees heard, they were not impressed and they said, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take our temple and our nation.” Caiaphus, the high priest, said, “You’re right about that. It would be better for this man to die, and the nation will be saved.” 

John, the gospel writer, explains that this was an unintentional prophecy. He says, “Caiaphus was right. Jesus will die to save the Jewish nation, and not only that nation, but also the scattered children of God. He will bring them together and make them one.” 

Let’s pray. 

Jesus, along with Lazarus’ sisters, we wonder why you don’t show up sooner in our sickness and pain and sorrow, before death does its final work.

With Thomas we are tempted to despair and cynicism. “We’re going to die anyway. Might as well follow Jesus to Lazarus’ death, and his own death, and probably ours too.”

With the Pharisees we want religion. But not religion out of control. Jesus, your person and teachings push the boundaries of everything that makes life stable and predictable for us. You challenge our view of sickness, of religion, of faith, of death.

We hear you say, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus, we believe in the resurrection of the body. But what do you mean, that you are the resurrection and you are the life? We come to you looking for healing not death, for clarity not questions, for a religious system we can believe in, not a person who throws our lives into turmoil and weeps over the grave. 

Jesus, today we receive you as you are, the man of resurrection and life. We receive you into our dying bodies, into our troubled minds, into our wayward spirits. We trust you to bring the scattered children of God together and make them one. Jesus, be our life in this age and in the age to come.  

Amen. 

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

Ep.101: Psalm 42: Deep Calls to Deep.

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

I first looked at Psalm 42 when I was in my early twenties, thanks to the book Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1964) by D. Martin Lloyd-Jones. At the time, I was looking for solutions to depression, loneliness, and introversion. In the first chapter, imaginatively titled “General Consideration”, Lloyd-Jones said, “[Psalm 42 gives] an extraordinarily accurate picture of spiritual depression. You can see the man looking cast down and dejected.” You see that drawn, haggard, vexed, troubled appearance (Lloyd-Jones, p. 13). At that point, for better or worse, I was hooked on the book and on Psalm 42. 

Three aspects of the psalm spoke to me. 

First, the poet describes his depression.  His emotional experience is turmoil, confusion, despair. Twice he says,
Why are you downcast, my soul,
  Why so disturbed within me? (vv. 5, 11)

His spiritual experience is also in disarray. He says his tears have been his food day and night, and people keep asking, “Where is your God?” (v. 3). In his sadness he says to God, “Why have you forgotten me?” (v. 9).

The poet’s social experience is a disaster too. He continues: 
“Why must I go about mourning,
  oppressed by the enemy?” (v. 9).
The poet’s friends and enemies both say, “Clearly, God is not showing up to help you,” (vv. 3, 10) and his own soul echoes the question, “Have you forgotten me, God?” (v. 9) and “When can I go and meet God?” (v. 2). This is the poet’s depression: lonely, troubled, taunted by enemies, no help from his friends, his thoughts and life in turmoil, his relationship with God non-existent. 

A second part of the psalm that spoke to me is the poet’s surprising awareness of things that encourage and give him hope. He starts the poem with an amazing upward and outward picture:
As the deer pants for streams of water,
So my soul pants for you, my God (v. 1).
His depression is not only a dark, inescapable pit. It is also a thirst, thirst for God. Perhaps God will give him a drink of water if he asks.

Later he says to God,
Deep calls to deep
            In the roar of your waterfalls
All your waves and your breakers
have gone over me (v. 7).
The poet feels himself drowning, but he hears God’s voice in the waters, “Deep calls to deep” (v. 7). In his trouble and depression, he feels God’s waterfall speaking to him, God’s waves washing over him. It seems God is both the storm that drowns him and the water that saves him. 

The third thing I found helpful in Psalm 42 is how the poet manages his depression. He manages it by talking to himself! Perhaps that’s a skill I need to learn. When the poet’s dark feelings talk to him, he talks right back to them with a different message. He doesn’t submit to feelings hopelessness, he doesn’t sink into despair. He questions his feelings, he questions himself, he redirects the conversation.
Why are your downcast, my soul,
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God. (vv. 5, 11). 

The poet also speaks to God, questioning God’s silence.
I will say to God my rock
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning?” (v. 9).

The wonderful message of this psalm is that when our experience is dark, when God seems silent and uninterested, we can still talk to him. We can invite him into our darkness, we can call on him to resume caring for us. 

Let’s pray.  

Our Father, so often in the psalms we have been stuck in the pit of despair, our feet lodged in mud, our mind imprisoned in darkness. But today’s psalm brings the language of hope to our prison. Perhaps our unquenchable thirst is our heart panting after you. Perhaps our feeling of drowning is your waves and your breakers washing over us. Perhaps our painful and vulnerable situation can be addressed to you, “God, you are my rock, why do you let my feet slip and my enemies harass?”

With the psalm we say,
  By day the Lord directs his love
at night his song is with me (v. 8).

And with the poet we pray,
  Why are you downcast my soul?
  Put your hope in God
  for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God (v. 11).  

Amen.

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

Ep.100: Suffering and God’s Glory.

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

At the beginning of John 11 when he heard Lazarus was sick, Jesus said, “This sickness is for God’s glory.” 

Do you think Jesus was stating a general rule? That the purpose of human sickness is to give glory to God? In John 5, a paralyzed man suffered 38 years until Jesus healed him. In John 8, a blind man suffered his whole life until Jesus healed him. Now in John 11, Lazarus got sick and died, until Jesus raised him. Can you explain God’s glory in all that suffering, or is Jesus’ lesson too hard? Perhaps God only gets glory when Jesus heals someone. If so, God is missing out on a lot of glory!

Kate Bowler in her book, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved (New York: Random House, 2018) describes her journey with Stage IV cancer and the prosperity gospel and faith. She often sounds like the psalms, ranting at God for life’s unfairness, angry with her enemy cancer, unhappy with comforters who spout unhelpful platitudes.

Facing death and grieving that she wouldn’t see her baby son grow up, she tells this story: 

When I was in the hospital, a neighbor told my husband that everything happens for a reason. “I’d love to hear it,” he replied.
  “Pardon?” she said, startled.
  “I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,” he said in his sweet and sour way, effectively ending the conversation. The neighbor stammered something and handed him a casserole. (Bowler, pp. 112-113). 

Bowler continues, commenting on the “reasons” people give why she might be suffering. She says,

There are three life lessons people try to teach me that, frankly, sometimes feel worse than cancer itself. The first is that I shouldn’t be so upset, because the significance of death is relative. A lot of Christians tell me that heaven is my true home and I want to ask them if they would like to go home first. Maybe now? (Bowler, p. 116).

The second lesson comes from the Teachers, who focus on how this experience is supposed to be an education in mind, body, and spirit. (Bowler, p. 117). One man bluntly writes, “I hope you have a ‘Job’ experience.” But I can’t think of anything worse to wish on someone. God allowed Satan to rob Job of everything, including his children’s lives. Do I need to lose something more to learn God’s character? (Bowler, p. 118).

Bowler says the third lesson comes from the Solutions People, who are already a little disappointed that she is not saving herself. “Keep smiling! Your attitude determines your destiny!” says Jane from Idaho, and I am immediately worn out by the tyranny of prescriptive joy. (Bowler, p. 119). A Nigerian woman writes that she sits through weekly meetings that encourage her to “talk faith-talk,” but she wants to acknowledge that, outside her office window, the bodies of abandoned babies are being collected and hauled away in black garbage bags (Bowler, p. 119).

Bowler continues, 

The letters that really speak to me don’t talk about why we die, they talk about who was there when they were dying. A man wrote to me about being taken hostage with his family and watching helplessly as the intruders pressed guns against his children’s noses and threaten to rape his wife and daughter. But God was there and he can’t explain it. He can’t explain who loosened the ropes, letting him escape with his family. He will never understand why he survived when a neighbor was found outside hanging by a rope the next morning. He doesn’t rationalize why some people were rescued and others were executed. He doubts there is a way that God “redeems” situations by extracting good from them. But he knows God was there because he felt peace, indescribable peace, and it changed him forever. He ends his letter to Bowler saying, “I have no idea how this works, but I wish this for you as you move forward.”  (Bowler, p. 120). 

Let’s pray. 

Jesus, I can’t begin to John’s theme that you get glory from human suffering–from Kate Bowler with Stage IV cancer, from Job who lost everything, from dead Nigerian babies, from a hostage who escaped and one who didn’t. Jesus, we bring our sufferings to you, not trying to explain them, not trying to understand how they might contribute to your glory. Instead, we ask you to be present with us, to share your life with us, to live your life in us, to walk with us through this endless valley. 

Amen. 

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

Ep.099: Psalm 41: Kick Him When He’s Down.

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

Psalm 41 describes the poet’s near-death experience. People came and went from his sick room, spreading rumors and waiting for him to die. His enemies said, 
   A vile disease has afflicted him,  
       he will never get up from his sickbed (v. 8). 

His friends also turned against him. He says,
  Even my best friend, who I trusted,
      who regularly ate meals with me,
        has become utterly devious (v. 8). 

This reminds me of a scene from George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch. As Peter Featherstone was dying upstairs in his bedroom, friends and relatives gathered downstairs, calculating how much they might inherit, eating his food and waiting for his death. He surprised everyone with a stingy will. 

In Psalm 41, those waiting for the poet’s death make us think of Jesus preparing for his death. At the Last Supper, as Jesus ate and drank with his disciples, Judas had arranged to make some money from Jesus’ misfortune. Jesus quoted verse 8 from today’s psalm: “He who shared my bread has turned against me” (John 13:8). 

Let’s pray. 

Jesus, we too have enemies who laugh and gossip at our predicaments, waiting for us to fail. Sometimes they are people we know, sometimes our own anxious thoughts. We have friends who abandoned us when our life fell apart.. We have been ditched unexpectedly by a boyfriend or girlfriend. Life has not turned out as we imagined it. Circumstances are not as we planned. Our bodies have grown sick, our businesses have failed, our finances have crashed, and our lives have gone into the pit. 

Amid these difficulties, we discovered who our true friends were. Some were embarrassed by our failures and deleted our contact information. Some couldn’t handle our sorrow, so they stayed away. Some didn’t like hospital, so they didn’t visit. Others were too busy being positive to care about our negative experiences.

Judas was unfaithful to you, Jesus. Why didn’t you fire him when he stole your money and negotiated your betrayal? Had you not read popular psychology books that tell us to avoid negatively focused people, and to terminate toxic relationships? Like you, Jesus, we too have complex relationships. We are not sure when to press on in a spirit of tolerance and forgiveness, when to confront and ask people to change, or when to terminate a relationship gone wrong. 

In our painful relationships, we follow the poet’s example. When enemies mock and friends abandon, we choose not to suppress our pain and disappointment. We express it to you. With the poet we look for your goodness and faithfulness, saying: 
     Blessed are those who have regard for the weak, 
  The Lord sustains them on their sick-bed
     and restores them from their bed of illness.

Yes, Jesus, you look after us when we are weak and sick and forsaken. Seek us when we are hurt and helpless and alone. You are not afraid of the powerless and the dysfunctional and the dirty and the dispossessed. As the poet says,
    Because of my integrity you uphold me
        and set me in your presence forever. 

Yes, Jesus, that is what we want. Uphold us in our weakness, bring us into your presence forever. And help us be faithful to our friends when they are weak and helpless.

Amen.

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

Ep.098: Shepherd me, Lord.

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

John chapter 9 ended with the Pharisees hurling insults at the man born blind and driving him away. But Jesus received him and invited him into faith. 

In John chapter 10, Jesus interpreted this experience. He said to the Pharisees, “All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate for the sheep. Whoever enters through me will be saved” (John 10:8).

Clearly, Jesus identified the Pharisees as thieves and robbers, the type who would evict a blind man instead of welcoming him into the fold. Then Jesus gave the Pharisees a description of how bad religious leaders interact with people.

He said bad religionists don’t approach the flock through the gate–they climb over the fence like thieves and robbers. Instead of coming to scripture through the central theme of loving God and others, the Pharisees invented complex theologies and difficult rules, and taught these for the truth. They built a high fence of scripture interpretation and behavioural pedigrees and climbed over it to harass the sheep. 

Jesus said the sheep are smart enough to tell the difference between the shepherd’s voice and that of a thief. The sheep respond to the shepherd, but they run away from the thief. Sounds like the blind man who left the Pharisees and went back to Jesus. 

Jesus also said that bad religionists act like hired hands–as soon as a wolf comes they abandon the sheep and run for their own lives. They are like consultants who dispense high-priced advice, but are long gone when you discover it doesn’t work. In contrast, the shepherd risks his life to protect the sheep. Today, many shepherds act like hired hands. They build their own sheep folds and herd the sheep into them. They insist on their interpretation of scripture and their way of experiencing God. They reject seekers who question their methods or theology, like the Pharisees rejected the blind man. 

Jesus announced, “I am the good shepherd. I am building one flock with one shepherd under my Father. To do this, I will lay down my life and take it up again.” 

When he said this, some people said, “What does he mean, he will lay down his life and take it up again? This is crazy talk. He must be demon possessed.” Others said, “But remember, he made the blind man see. That’s not crazy.” 

Let’s pray. 

Jesus, we are the Pharisees. We interpret scripture and create our own religious systems. Did you say you are building one flock with one shepherd, Jesus? We can help you figure out what that looks like. We will be your consultants. We will submit our proposal with our doctrinal statement and our list of rules. 

Jesus, we are the sheep. We hear confusing voices trying to explain what you mean. Preachers and teachers and scholars, Catholic and Protestant and self-styled theologians insist that they have found the truth of the Bible and distilled it into the right system of belief. But you said, “My sheep hear my voice.” O Jesus, in the conflict of interpretations, we listen for your voice. Help us hear you. Give us courage to ignore all competing voices. 

Jesus, we look forward to the day when there will be one flock with one shepherd. When the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isa. 11:9). When the tree grows who leaves are for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2). Come, good shepherd, come. 

Amen. 

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

Ep.097: Psalm 40: Out of the Pit.

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

Psalm 40 begins with a song of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance. “I was stuck in a muddy pit,” says the poet. “I was mired in the bog.” He waited in hope for the Lord, who lifted him out of the pit and set his feet on a rock. “He gave me a new song,” says the poet, “a song of praise to our God.” 

Let’s pray. 

Lord, we have felt mired in the pit. We have been in that place where everything falls apart, leaving us isolated, depressed, hopeless, fearful. How easily we are sent there by an unkind word, a minor accident, a fleeting argument, a small illness. How easily our world becomes dark and unfriendly and slippery. Thank you for finding us in the pit, thank you for rescuing us, thank you for setting our feet on solid ground, thank you for turning our pity-party into a song of praise.

With the poet we praise you,
    Many, Lord my God,
      are the wonders you have done,
      the things you have planned for us.
    None can compare with you;
      were I to speak of your deeds,
      they would be too many to declare (v. 5)..

Yes, Lord, you have helped us escape from our prison, your have invited us to your God-party. We exchange our darkness for the light of your house, our muddy despair for a glimpse of your plan for us. We exchange our starvation diet for appetizers and wine at your table, we exchange our hopeless silence for the music of your orchestra.  We don’t have enough words to describe your goodness; our spreadsheets don’t have enough numbers to count your blessings; for you are the rock on which we stand, you are the universe in which we live. 

With the poet we say,
    Sacrifice and offering you did not desire —
        but my ears you have opened
        burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.
      Then I said, “Here I am, I have come. . .
      I desire to do your will, my God;
      your law is within my heart (v. 6-8). 

There is a time for sacrifice, but what your heart desires is not technical obedience to the law, not a work-to-rule campaign by unhappy slaves, not bloody sacrifices for sin. You desire us, and you want us to desire you. Your loving presence in our hearts is all the law we need. A deep desire for your fatherly embrace is the only motivation we require. 

With the proet we pray, 
     May all who seek you
       rejoice and be glad in you;
    may those who long for your saving help always say,
      “The Lord is great!” (v. 16). 

Yes, Lord, may we not be sullen, duty-bound seekers. May we seek you with rejoicing and gladness. Day by day we look for you, sometimes feeling that we find you, sometimes feeling that you hide. Teach us to enjoy the search, teach us to enjoy the journey, teach us to enjoy the quest and the questions. You are bigger than our questions and greater than the answers we find.

Let those who long for you say, “The Lord is great!” Our hearts and motives are a mystery even to ourselves; but your heart and motives are as deep as the sea and kind beyond comparison. Our thoughts are sometimes profound, but yours are unfathomable. We long for you, and we believe you long for us. 

Amen.

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

Ep.096: Who is blind?

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

In John chapter 9, Jesus and his disciples met a blind man on the Sabbath. The disciples had a question: “Was this man born blind because of his sin or because of his parents’ sin?” Bad theologians and incompetent managers everywhere still think like that. With the disciples they say, “Something has gone wrong here. Who shall we blame?” 

Jesus was not interested in assigning blame. If he had an MBA, he might have said, “This isn’t a problem, lads, it’s an opportunity!” 

Jesus solved the problem by mixing spit with dirt, perhaps remembering that God created humans from clay. He put the mixture on the blind man’s eyes, and told him to wash in a pool. When the man did, he could see for the first time in his life. Jesus, the light of the world, had put light in this man’s eyes. 

The healing created a local sensation. The Pharisees tried to make spiritual sense of what happened. They listened to the man’s story. Some said, “Jesus can’t be from God because he healed this man on the Sabbath.” Other Pharisees said, “Obviously, God’s power is at work here. Sinners don’t do a miracle like this!” 

The Pharisees called in the parents. “Tell us how your son who was born blind can see.” The parents knew the Pharisees hated Jesus, so they dodged the question. “You’re right,” they said, “he was born blind. And yes, he can now see. We don’t know how it happened. Why don’t you ask him? He’s an adult.” 

So the Pharisees called the man back and asked him to retell his story. He replied, “I already told you and you didn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become disciples of Jesus?” 

The Pharisees didn’t have an answer, so they hurled insults. They said, “You are this fellow’s disciple, but WE are disciples of Moses! We know God spoke to Moses, but we don’t even know where this Jesus person comes from.”

The man answered, “That’s remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. Nobody’s ever heard of making a blind man see. If Jesus is not from God, he could do nothing.”

The Pharisees said, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us! Get out.” 

So he went back to Jesus who said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man replied, “Tell me who he is, so I can believe.” Jesus said, “You see him now. It’s me.” The man simply said, “Lord, I believe.”  

Let’s pray. 

Jesus, we are the Pharisees, amazed by what you do, and amazed that you break our rules when you do it. You broke the Pharisees rules about Sabbath keeping, you broke their view of scripture as rule-book, you broke their view of God as the one who wants people to be rule-keepers, you broke their social class by welcoming the man after the Pharisees condemned his experience and his simple theology. Jesus, work outside our narrow pharisaical religion that tells us how you ought to work; help us lose our religion of rules and judgments, and learn your religion of relationships and healing. 

Jesus, like the blind man we come to you. Thank you for giving us sight. You healed our blindness, lifted our depression, heard our arguments with religious institutions, and invited us to believe in you. Lord, we believe. 

Amen. 

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