Ep.268: Psalm 128: Straight and Narrow.

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

Psalm 128 says:  

   Blessed are all who fear the Lord,
      who walk in obedience to him.
  You will eat the fruit of your labor;
      blessings and prosperity will be yours.
  Your wife will be like a fruitful vine. . .
  Your children like olive shoots
        round your table 

Two comments on this passage. 

First, the good life God gives to those who fear him is not wealth nor success nor power. The poet describes the good life as a life of sufficiency, not excess, as a domestic life enjoying the fruits of one’s labor, as a life at peace with one’s spouse and children. It’s a stretch to suggest that today, God’s blessing and prosperity should include a big car, a big house, a big bank account, and a vacation cottage. 

My second comment is about the fear of the Lord. What does it mean to fear God?

Recently, I hiked to Sarrail Ridge in the Rockies. On a 6-kilometer trek, we gained one kilometer of elevation. Standing on the Sarrail Ridge, looking down a steep, rock-strewn cliff to the lake a kilometer below, I got that queasy feeling of vertigo, and stepped back from the edge. Then we sat on a rock overlooking the cliff, munching potato chips and sandwiches, enjoying the view.  

The hike reminds me of my walk with God, mostly trudging uphill, avoiding roots and rocks, stepping over fallen trees, trying not to slip on shale and gravel. Occasionally the path winds past a serene mountain lake or through a rippling stream. Gravity is present on the journey, ready to pull me to the ground if I stumble, quick to dump me over a cliff if I give way to vertigo. On the journey, I am careful, but not fearful. 

God is always with me, just 10155like gravity, but my response to him is not fear of his power and punishments. God is present in the air I breathe and the world I live in. He gives me freedom to act, he encourages me as I take each step in life, in relationships, in work, or rest. If I run afoul of his laws of spiritual gravity, if I consistently ignore or wander from his path, I will experience consequences. But God’s attitude to me is father and friend and guide, encourage. He gives me his Spirit, he leads me through his high country, he picks me up when I stumble. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, creator, as you built the universe with a strong force of gravity, so you created human life for true morality. Help us to walk in love you and our neighbors. May the gravity of that task not weigh us down and crush us, but may it show us the way to go. May we experience it, as Frances Havergal wrote:
  The narrow track upon the mountain side,
  With ever-widening view, and freshening air,
  And honeyed heather. . . 
        from Frances Ridley Havergal, “The Two Paths,” Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
        Accessed 27 August 2021. https://ccel.org/ccel/havergal/keptuse.h5.html  

We fear displeasing you, father, we fear to incur your anger. But we trust that you are for us, not against us. Walk with us through this life, correct us where we are wrong, encourage us to do right. We are not fearful children, but trusting. 

Amen. 

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

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.263: How to Perfect Faith.

Ep.263: Hebrews 12: How to Make Faith Perfect.

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

Hebrews 12 says:
  Therefore, since we have a great cloud of witnesses
    let us lay aside everything that hinders
              and the sin which entangles, and
     let us run with patience
              the race that is set before us
  fixing our eyes on Jesus
              the author and perfecter of faith.
    (Hebrews 12:1-2a)

Our cloud of witnesses is the heroes of faith highlighted in Hebrews 11. We could imagine them peering down from heaven, cheering us on in our race of faith. More likely, the author means that their lives witnessed to the faith we have taken up. We keep the faith by emulating their encouraging stories. 

How to do this? The author’s advice: think like a long-distance runner. Strip down to the essentials–running shoes, shorts, shirt. Pace yourself for the long haul. Lay aside everything that hinders and sins which entangle.

So, why don’t we disentangle ourselves and run freely, successfully, in the faith? I look to several reasons in my experience.

I go in fits and starts rather than running a long, patient race. If I begin a new program of devotions on Monday, by Friday I’m either sleeping in or surfing world news instead of reading scripture or praying. 

If I decide to use my time more wisely and efficiently, I soon become confused about what to do next. Before I know it, the afternoon is squandered playing computer Scrabble. 

I think of the people I could phone or meet. But first, maybe, a nap. 

Perhaps I should try harder, beat myself up, or look for new strategies to get stuff done. 

The author of Hebrews suggests a better approach. He says, simply: Look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith.

Easier said than done. How can I look to Jesus? Hebrews 11 says Moses persevered because he saw him who was invisible (v. 27). 

I don’t have Moses’ skill of seeing the invisible. But here is one way I look to Jesus. I’ve always been plagued with memories of wrongs I committed, people I’ve failed, opportunities squandered, time lost, lack of progress in things material and spiritual. Those memories come unbidden, unwelcome, triggering self-condemnation. Recently, when I think of those things I pray,
    Jesus, I leave my past at your cross,
      trusting you
            to forgive all my sin,
            to heal all my disease,
            to fix all that is broken. 

That’s it. My simple discipline of turning, or repenting, or fixing my eyes on Jesus. 

Let’s pray. 

O Jesus, we live by seeing the invisible, by inhabiting metaphors of salvation. We eat your body and drink your blood, and work in your invisible kingdom. Give us eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts to believe, and courage to live the life of faith. 

Amen. 

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

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.262: Psalm 127: Unless the Lord Builds the House.

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

Psalm 127 begins: 

   Unless the Lord builds the house,
      the builders labor in vain.
  Unless the Lord guards the city,
      the guards keep watch in vain.
    In vain you rise early
      and go late to rest,
      eating the bread of anxious toil;
      for he gives his beloved sleep (vv. 1-2). 

The poet has quickly disposed of the myths of the self-made man, the lone ranger, and the workaholic. Success is not the result of human effort alone; success comes when God and people work cooperatively. 

The Taliban recently returned to power in Afghanistan, quickly filling the vacuum left by departing Americans. The United States spent twenty years and billions of dollars building and supplying the Afghan government, Afghan infrastructure, the Afghan army, the house of Afghanistan. But it all imploded in one week in August. As the poet says, unless the Lord builds the house, unless the Lord guards the city, the army and the politicians labor in vain. 

The second half of the psalm talks about family:
  Children are a heritage from the Lord . . .
  Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
      are sons of one’s youth.
  Blessed is the man
      whose quiver is full of them. 
  He will not be put to shame
      when he contends with his enemies in the gate. 

In an ancient, patriarchal, agricultural society, it was good to have sons to work the fields, protect the family, and defend the city from enemies at the gates. The poet gives God credit for building the family: children are indeed a heritage from the Lord.

Let’s pray. 

Our father, how often we append a prayer to our plans, asking you to bless them. But the poet sees a more cooperative process, in which we build the house when you are building, or we guard the city you are guarding, or we leave our work undone when you invite us to rest. Give us, we pray, that inner sense of how to cooperate in the work you are doing.  

How different was the poet’s life from ours. We are less patriarchal, less agricultural, more technological. No walled cities. No enemies gathering at city gates. Instead, the threats to our religion and way of life are corrupt ideologies, lying conspiracy theories, and violent fundamentalist movements in Islam and Christianity. The lure of hedonism calls our sons and daughters away from the godly heritage we have tried to give them. Our children are a heritage from you, our city and country a gift from you. Guard our heritage as we try to preserve what is good and resist what is evil. 

Amen. 

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

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.261: When Faith Doesn’t Work.

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

Hebrews 11, the great chapter about faith, says: 

   What more shall I say?
  I do not have time to tell about
    Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets,
    who through faith
          conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised;
    who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of flames,
            and escaped the edge of the sword;
    whose weakness was turned to strength. . .

  There were others who were tortured,
    refusing to be released so they might gain a better resurrection.
    Some faced jeers and flogging, chains and imprisonment.
    They were put to death by stoning; they were sawn in two;
                they were killed by the sword.
    They went about in sheepskins and goatskins,
            destitute, persecuted and mistreated—
            the world was not worthy of them.
                – Hebrews 11:32-38a

There it is: two sides of faith. One is a glorious and victorious side, where the faithful do mighty works to conquer kingdoms, escape death, and turn weakness into strength. 

And then there’s the other side, where the faithful are abused, punished, imprisoned, and killed. 

Which faith outcome do you prefer? Do you think God presents a smorgasbord of options so you can choose your own meal? 

The prosperity gospel emphasizes one part of faith. It says that by faith you can become “all God intends you to be”. Live inspired. Reach your dreams. Don’t associate with naysayers and doubters. Let faith lift you to success and happiness and wealth. 

Fortunately, Hebrews tells the rest of the story. Some by faith faced jeers and flogging, chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, sawn in two, killed by the sword; destitute, persecuted, mistreated–the world was not worthy of them (vv. 37-38).   

I try to live in a safe zone between these two options, these extremes. A place of North American riches. . .but not too rich. A place of comfort. . .but not too comfortable. A tolerant society where I am not persecuted for my faith. A peaceful life where I don’t try to conquer kingdoms, shut the mouths of lions, or quench the fury of flames. 

How does that old doggerel go? 

  The high soul takes the high road and the low soul takes the low,
  And in between on the misty flats, the rest drift to and fro.
          (John Oxenham, The Ways, paraphrased).

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we do not understand our motives. Satan accuses us, as he did Job, of following you because you’ve made our lives easy. We have tried to be faithful, but our faith has not conquered heights or faced persecution. 

Is there room in your kingdom for us average people? For those of us on the misty flats, surviving but not thriving, faithful but not outstanding, honest but not to a fault? 

The apostle Paul’s description of faith includes slaves who work for their masters, women who endure unreasonable husbands, men who try to be kind, church leaders who are helpful and sober. 

O Jesus, are these works of faith? Receive our lives as we live them, our hearts as we offer them, our goods as we give them, and our prayers as we pray, “Your kingdom come”.  

Amen. 

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

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.260: Psalm 126: Song of the Dreamer.

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

Psalm 126 begins, 

  When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
      we were like those who dreamed.
  Our mouths were filled with laughter,
      our tongues with songs of joy.
  The Lord has done great things for us,
      and we are filled with joy (vv. 1-3).  

The poet doesn’t tell us what recent disaster needed God’s intervention and restoration. But he does say how it felt to see God’s work: It felt like living in a dream! Who could believe God had showed up after the awful happened, and changed it all to good. 

And now the poet needs another miracle. He prays,
  Restore our fortunes, Lord,
      like streams in the Negev (v. 4).
Once again the poet’s circumstances require God’s intervention. “Like streams in the desert” he says–streams that most of the year are dry and dusty; but when the yearly rains come, they fill with refreshing water.

Then the poet gives another image of the yearly cycle.     
Those who go out weeping,
        carrying seed to sow,
    will return with songs of joy,
      carrying sheaves with them (v. 6). 

I have always wondered why anyone would sow with tears. I once heard a missionary say: As planting time approaches and the family food supply runs low, the father protects their precious stock of spring seed. Yes, it could be used to meet immediate needs, but the farmer resists the crying of his family, and in sorrow sows the seed in hope of harvest. 

When harvest happens, it is another example of God restoring the fortunes of the poor. The farmer returns with sheaves of wheat, singing songs of joy. He too is a dreamer, who can hardly believe that the long year has brought fruition to his dreams. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, my dreams of late have been anxious: I am late to class, unprepared, unclothed, and fearful. Where do these dreams come from? Restore my fortunes, drive out my anxieties, bring me back to peaceful dreams. 

Father, I have a small garden this year, with tomatoes I grew from seed and scarlet runner beans and a raspberry bush that has withered in the heat. I did not sow in tears, but I feel the power of the poet’s metaphor. There is a season for sowing and one for harvesting, and a time for weeping and time for joy. 

Be with us in these seasons of our lives. Tend us as we grow, remember us in your harvest at the end of the age.

Amen. 

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

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.259: Psalm 125: A Theology of the Mountains.

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

Psalm 125 moves between two visions of Jerusalem: one is the city destroyed by the Babylonians; the other is Jerusalem, the city of God–permanent, secure, protected. 

I think the poet navigates these two conflicting pictures by focusing on Mount Zion, the rather small mountain on which Jerusalem is perched. Unlike the city, the mountain is settled, unshakeable. It becomes a picture of God’s faithful people, who are also settled and unshakeable in his protection. Like the mountains surrounding Mount Zion, the Lord arranges himself around his people to protect them. 

The poet’s choice of images is instructive. We too want a secure city, a reliable world free of chaos and destruction. But we live in Jerusalem, the city of human culture and civilization, subject to devastation, disease, and decay. So we turn our eyes from the failing city of man to Mount Zion, God’s dwelling place. The earth below, the skies above, and the mountains around are enduring signs of God’s care and protection. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, on vacation in the Rockies, I saw mountains surrounded by mountains, and mountains beyond mountains. You surround your people like mountains–beautiful, breath-taking, permanent.

And yet, like the city of Jerusalem, our lives keep changing. We live in a pandemic that reorders society, the smoke of wildfires invades our cities, social order fragments, morality declines. Our bodies turn to dust.

We say with the hymn writer,
  Change and decay in all around I see,
      O Thou who changest not, abide with me. (Henry Francis Lyte. Abide with Me, 1847).  

With the poet we pray, 

   May the rod of wickedness not rest
      on the portion of the righteous (v. 3a).
    Do good to those who are good,
      to those who are upright in heart (v. 4). 

Yes, Lord, deliver us from evil. In our lives and in our world, replace the rule of wickedness with your reign of righteousness. Bring your kingdom to our churches, our cities, our world. Renew us with hope, revive us with life, do good to those who are good. 

Amen. 

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

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.258: Psalm 124: The Big If.

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

Psalm 124 talks about the Big If. It says,
  If the Lord had not been on our side
      when people attacked us,
  they would have swallowed us alive
      when their anger flared against us;
  the flood would have engulfed us,
      the torrent would have swept over us,
  the raging waters
      would have swept us away (vv. 1-5). 

That’s the Big If:
   If the Lord had not been on our side (vv. 1a, 2a).        

Occasionally, the Bible encourages us to imagine a different reality than the one we are experiencing. God did this before the flood, when he saw endless evil in his humans. He regretted he had made them (Gen 6:5). Clearly, he imagined a different reality, a reality where people would love him, honor one another, and respect creation. So God decided to start over with the righteous Noah to see if his imagined reality might become real. Sadly, it didn’t. The sin infection ran just too deep in the human race. 

In today’s psalm, the poet imagines a different life than the one he is living. What would have happened if God had not been on the side of his people? What if God had ignored their needs, or sided with their enemies? The poet imagines the disasters that would have come–swallowed alive, like a snake swallowing a mouse. Trapped, like a bird in a snare.  Swept away like a tsunami, destroying life and property.

Let’s pray. 

Our father, our lives are haunted by the Big If.
– What if we were born into poverty instead of riches?
– What if we were born to war instead of peace?
– What if we were born to drug addiction and homelessness?

And what if we had made different choices? Choosing
– Despair instead of faith?
– Hatred instead of love?
– Darkness instead of light?

Our father, with the poet we shift our gaze from the things we imagine to the things that are. You have watched over us so that: 

   We have escaped like a bird
      from the snare of the fowler,
  Our help is in your name, O Lord,
      maker of heaven and earth (vv. 7-8).

Thank you for being our helper and guide, for delivering us from evil that might have occured, for leading us to a place of peace, for promising us a place called home.

Amen. 

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

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.257: Psalm 123: Servant’s View of God.

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

In Psalm 121, the poet said, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills.” Now, in Psalm 123, he says:
  To you I lift up my eyes,
    O you who are enthroned in the heavens (v. 1). 

Then the poet prays to this God in the heavens: 
  As the eyes of slaves
      look to their master,
  as the eyes of slavegirls
      look to their mistress,
  so our eyes are on the Lord our God
      until he grants us mercy (vv. 2-3).

This is one of the quietest, most peaceful, most hopeful prayers in the psalms. It doesn’t reek of desperation, it doesn’t try to cajole God into action, it doesn’t petition God for help or advantage. Instead, it waits quietly and patiently for God to acknowledge the poet’s gaze and respond. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we are distracted people. We have business to conduct, food to prepare, news to read, and the internet to surf. Places to go and people to meet. Is it not your job to smooth our way and monitor our schedule and bless our activities?

But today, with the poet we take a break from our restless activity. We look to you, we wait for you. 

My dog waits patiently by the door, watching intently as I tie my boots, get a water bottle, put on sunglasses and hat. He knows that good things are coming soon–a walk in the smells of summer, the society of other dogs, a picnic table where he will share my muffin. But for now, he’s patient, waiting for my signal to go. 

Perhaps I could live with my eyes on you, God, waiting for you to look at me, waiting for your signal. Like the poet, I could be quiet and at peace with you. 

With the poet we pray,
  Grant us grace, O Lord, grant us grace,
      for we have been objects of contempt.
  Long have we suffered
      the ridicule of of the arrogant
      and the contempt of the proud (vv. 3-4).  

O Lord, we do not seek the riches of the stock market, nor the fame of Hollywood, nor the respect of politicians who game the system. Grant us your grace to lead humble, quiet lives, looking only to you.

Amen. 

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

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.256: Who Had Faith?

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

Hebrews 11 says: 
  By faith the Israelites passed through the Red Sea as on dry land
      but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.
  By faith the walls of Jericho fell,
      after the army had marched round them for seven days.
  By faith the prostitute Rahab,
      because she welcomed the spies,
      was not killed with those who were disobedient.
– Hebrews 11:29-31

The passage tells us the Israelites passed through the Red Sea by faith. And that the Egyptians, lacking faith, were drowned. 

This sounds like a different story than the Old Testament tells. Exodus highlights the Israelite’s fear and doubt, not their faith. They complained that Moses should have left well enough alone, instead of leading them to certain death, caught between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army. If there was faith, it was not the people, but Moses, who stretched his rod over the sea and parted it. And stretched it again to drown the pursuing army.     

Did Rahab have faith when she hid the Israelite spies? Her explanation was that she heard about the plagues God sent on Egypt, and about the military victories he gave the Israelites. She wanted to place her bet on the winners and their God, instead of siding with her local team. Which, judging from her occupation, wasn’t treating her all that well anyway. 

Did the Israelites have faith when they marched around Jericho? They were obeying Joshua’s instructions, but did they really expect the walls to fall down?

Let’s pray. 

Our father, our prayers often feel like an endless march around Jericho, but the walls we circle don’t fall in seven days. 

Our prayers often feel like Rahab. In uncertain times, we place our bet on the party we think will win.

Our prayers often feel like the Israelties by the Red Sea, caught between an impossible ocean and Pharaoh’s army.  

Lord, we invite you to accept our fears, our calculations, and our marching round and round. We do it in your name, trusting that you will hear us and answer our prayers. 

Amen. 

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

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.255: Psalm 122: Jerusalem, Jerusalem.

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

Psalm 122 celebrates the excitement of a pilgrim entering Jerusalem. The pilgrim rejoices in the majesty and tranquility of the city, and looks forward to worshipping at the magnificent temple. 

When Psalm 122 was written, Jerusalem was the capital of southern Israel, ruled by the house of David, home to the temple where God’s special presence resided. To a pilgrim, Jerusalem symbolized everything that was good–safety and security, political stability, just laws applied justly, and worship at God’s temple.

The name Jerusalem means city of shalom, that is, city of peace and well-being. But its history tells a different story. King David conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites (1 Chron 11:4-5), launching a three-thousand-year history of national and international violence. David’s son Absalom staged a coup against King David. His grandson Rehoboam implemented policies that split the kingdom. And so the story goes, until David’s line of kings failed when Babylon sacked Jerusalem. And then the city fell again and again:  Persia, Greece, Rome, Arabia, the Crusaders, and the Ottoman Turks. Israeli democracy today continues the problems: internal strife, and ongoing violence in Palestine, Iran, and Syria. Where is the peace of Jerusalem?

Let’s pray. 

Our father, with the poet we say,
    I was glad when they said to me,
      “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”
    Our feet are standing
      in your gates, Jerusalem (vv. 1-2).
The psalm reminds us of glad times when we experienced your presence in church or conferences, when you revealed yourself in preaching, sacraments, and worship music. 

But the poet’s joy in Jerusalem reminds us how transient such experiences may be. When has Jerusalem lived up to its name: city of peace and well-being? Even Jesus cried, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill prophets and stone those sent to you. I have longed to gather your children as a hen gathers her chicks, but you were not willing” (Mat. 23:37). 

The poet urges us to pray for the shalom of Jeru-shalom, saying:
  Pray of the peace of Jerusalem:
      May those who love you be secure.
  May there be peace within your walls
      and security with your citadels” (v. 7).  

Yes, Lord, in our transient lives, we look for a city of peace. In our dangerous world, we want a place of security . . . in our conflicted world we look for community . . . in our unstable world we look for a firm foundation. O Lord, help us be instruments of your peace. Help us to create:
  peace in our families,
  harmony and good works in our churches,
  neighborliness in our communities,
  righteousness in our cities. 

O Lord, help us fulfill the promise of Jerusalem, to build a city of peace in a war-torn world, a temple of worship in a civilization of idolatry, a place of truth in a world of lies. May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 

Amen.

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

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube