Ep.183: The Apostle Paul at Prayer.

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

Over the next few weeks, we will consider prayers from the apostle Paul. But first, a confession: I find Paul’s personilty and his writings difficult. He seems a driven man, first when he persecuted the church, then when he travelled the world as a missionary and wrote hard-hitting theological letters. I might enjoy interviewing him for a news story, but I wouldn’t want to travel with him. And I would not be enthusiastic about sharing his arguments and imprisonments and beatings and shipwrecks.

Even today, his harsh judgments and confrontational style intimidate me and make me feel guilty.

Here’s an example. In Galatians, Paul says, “When Peter came to Antioch I opposed him to his face because he stood condemned. . . . I said to Peter in front of them all, ‘You are a Jew yet you live like a Gentile. So why do you force the Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” Sounds like a Type-A personality–tightly wound, intense, impatient, verging on hostility. “I opposed him to his face,” he says.

And there’s Paul’s lovely little suggestion to those advocating circumcision for Christians. He says, “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and castrate themselves” (Galatians 5:12). Was circumcision really that big a deal? 

At one point, Paul parted company with his friend and colleague, Barnabus, rather than give Mark, who had deserted him, a second chance (Acts 15:36-29). I would not have fared well under Paul’s supervision. 

And yet, from this hard nosed Type-A personality comes some of the most compassionate and fatherly statements in scripture. He calls Timothy “My dear son” (2 Tim. 1:2). He writes to the Thessalonians, “We were gentle among you like a nursing mother caring for her children” (1 Thess. 2:7). And he writes to the Corinthians, “We have spoken freely to you . . . our heart is wide open.” (2 Cor 6:11).

Perhaps I shouldn’t fear Paul’s volatile emotions and extreme statements. Maybe I should see him as a fellow human and fellow servant of God. If he’s too confrontational, I am too reticent. If Paul is too hard-nosed, I am too soft. If Paul is too driven, maybe I am way too comfortable.

I agree with Peter who said, “[Paul’s] letters contain .  .  .  things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort. . . to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16). God guided Paul’s writings and heard his prayers. Maybe I should listen instead of distorting. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, there is much in scripture we stumble over. The fifth commandment says, “Do not murder”, but the Old Testament makes a grand exception for the wars that Israel perpetrated and endured. 

The first two commands are “Love God” and “Love your neighbor.” But Jesus engaged in scathing word battles and endless conflict with the religious leaders of his time. Paul did the same, turning a scorching pen on those he felt were enemies of himself and God and the gospel.

But he was your servant, and you heard his prayers, and guided his mission. And like Christ his Lord, you led him to execution by the Roman Empire. And brought him to everlasting life in Jesus’ name. 

May it be so for us.

Amen. 

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

Ep.182: Psalm 81: Worship Band and Obedience.

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

Psalm 81 opens with a hymn of praise, performed with vocals, drums, a stringed instrument (perhaps an ancient ancestor of the guitar) and a unique wind instrument–a ram’s horn. Sounds almost like a modern worship band!

This rollicking celebration at the new moon festival was part of Israel’s constitution–the standard operating procedures given by God when he freed them from Egyptian slavery. God didn’t legislate a culture of dour, straight-laced correctness. He invited people to celebrate, to rock a bit. 

He also wanted a culture that honored him as the God who gives freedom. Author Vernard Ellard in his book, The Mad Morality paraphrases God as saying to Israel, 

   “I’m the God who set you free, right?”
    Right.
  “I’ve adequately demonstrated that your freedom is my prime concern, right?”
    Right.
  “So I’m going to give you 10 suggestions for how to stay free. I’ve dealt with your slavery to Egypt. But beware of other people and other things that offer freedom. Because I’m the only God out there who wants people who are free, not a nation of slaves.” (Paraphrased from Ellard, Vernon. The MAD Morality or the Ten Commandments Revisited. New York: Abingdon Press, 1972. pp. 16-17). 

But the people broke God’s rules and his heart by giving their freedom to false gods. Listen to God’s cry:
    If only my people would listen to me,
      if Israel would only follow my ways,
    how quickly I would subdue their enemies
      and turn my hand against their foes
    I would feed you with the finest of wheat;
      with honey from the rock I would satisfy you (vv. 13-14, 16). 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we bring to you the false gods that offer us freedom.

Billionaire Jeffrey Epstein worshipped the god of sex, but ended his life hanging in his prison cell. Lord, help us not to offer our freedom to the god of sex. 

We think of the T-shirt that reads, “Don’t mess with my freedom, my firearms, my family, my faith”. Is the wearer confident that if anyone messes with him, he is strong and wise enough to mete out justice with a gun? O Lord, help us not to offer our freedom to the god of individualism, the god of self.

We think of rigid doctrinal purists who are confident they have the right method to interpret scripture, and the right doctrines derived from scripture, and the right morality based on scripture. O Lord, help us not to offer our freedom to the god of rationalism, the god of rigid systems, the god that places our own definition of truth above the command to love you and people and creation.  

We think of people who are slaves to conspiracy theories, waiting anxiously for the next cryptic revelation from QAnon or the next announcement of world-ordering decisions from the Illuminati or the next hint of suspicion about which evil actors developed and distributed COVID-19. Lord, help us not to lose our freedom to anxious thoughts and to fearful imaginings about the great evils that stalk our world.

With the poet we pray, 

  • help us listen to your voice.
  • help us believe your words more than all the clamor on the Internet.
  • help us rest in the fact that it is you, not the Illuminati nor the wealthy nor the powerful, that rule our world.
  • help us hope in your soon coming that will set the world to rights. 

Amen

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

Ep.181: Psalm 80: God of Gardens, God of Armies.

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

Today we look at Psalm 80, a lament for the overthrow of Israel, and a plea for God to make a U-turn, to stop delivering the country to destruction and to begin restoring it. 

The psalm is marked by several striking pictures of God. It opens,
    Hear us, shepherd of Israel,
        you who lead Joseph like a flock.
    You who sit enthroned between the cherubim. . .
      Awaken your might;
      come and save us (v. 1-2).

In these two verses, the poet addresses God as shepherd of Israel, as king whose throne is in the temple, and as a mighty saviour who ought to rescue his people. 

Then follows a refrain that occurs three times in the psalm (vv. 3, 7, 19). The poet says,
    Restore us, God of Armies,
      make your face shine on us
      that we may be saved (vv. 3, 7, 19).

Do you find it odd asking God, the commander of armies, to smile at you? President Trump is the commander-in-chief of the U.S. army, but he isn’t famous for his smile.

As the poem continues, it describes God as a gardener who transplanted his vine, Israel, from Egypt into the Promised Land.There, he carefully tilled the ground and planted the vine, tenderly caring for it until it covered the whole Promised Land from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean. But now, God has let the wall around his vineyard crumble. Wild boars trample the vines, insects infest them, and passers-by help themselves to the grapes. “Why have you let this happen?” asks the poet. “After all the trouble you took transplanting and tending the vine, have you suddenly quit caring about it?” 

Let’s pray the pictures of God from this psalm. 

Our father, God of Armies, the nations of our world look for strongman leaders. 

  • Leaders who project decisiveness and strength in the face of racial and economic and social conflict. 
  • Leaders who express sympathy for the troubles and prejudices of common people. 
  • Leaders who do not care about political correctness or moral values. 
  • Leaders with simple solutions to complex problems. 

God of Armies, it is your strength we need, for the time is coming when the strength of human leaders will fail, when their power will be revealed as weakness, and their wisdom as foolishness.

Our father, shepherd your people in these times. Lead us to wisdom. It is simple to believe in you, but not easy. In much of your church we see rigid theological opinions, strange political affiliations, unscriptural belief in individual freedom, and little understanding of community. Bring us out of our worldly values into the fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Expose our illusions of self-sufficiency and lead us into community.

You who sit enthroned in your holy temple, help us live as holy people, as members of your family, as people set apart to serve you. Anxiety disorders increase during COVID-19, government support for the unemployed draws to an end, the count of sick and dead surges. O God, repair the wall around your garden, care for your vineyard again, look in mercy on all you have created, for the sake of your son Jesus Christ, who shared our human condition.

Amen

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

Ep.180: Making Jesus’ Stories Ours.

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

In recent episodes, we looked at twenty stories Jesus told. Today, let’s think about what we’ve learned from them.

I once asked a missionary, “Has your theology changed in forty years since you graduated?” 

He rightly understood it as a trick question. If I believed theology was fixed and should never change, his answer might make him look like a heretic. But if he hadn’t changed in 40 years, it might look like he wasn’t thinking and growing? 

He replied wisely and honestly: that his main discovery since graduation was that scripture gives us not a system of theology, but mostly stories to believe. 

He was right. The central article of our faith is the story of Jesus. Our English word “gospel” comes from Old English “gōd spel”, which means “good story”. 

In C. S. Lewis’ story, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the children discovered that the back of their wardrobe sometimes became an entrance to the world of Narnia. In the wardrobe of my life, Jesus’ stories serve that function. My closet is full of worn out clothes and dubious ideas. But when I enter life through the stories of Jesus, they invite me into a new world with different characters and different plot. Jesus broadens my perspective to the possibility of new adventures in a new country. 

That’s how Jesus’ stories work for me. They aren’t just entertainment in the crowded wardrobe of my life. Instead, they tell me who I am, they paint a picture of the person I could be, they tell me where I could go if I step out of my wardrobe into the country of grace. 

As I listen to Jesus’ stories, I  am the woman making bread from 60 pounds of flour, using a bit of yeast to make the whole batch rise. In the back of my flour-dusted, doughy, yeasty wardrobe, Jesus promises, “If you let just a little of my kingdom into your life, and soon I will change all of it.” 

I am the prodigal who prefers parties and entertainment to life on the father’s farm. I fill my days with video games and Facebook and YouTube and messaging. But in the back of my cluttered, computer-driven social media wardrobe is a land where the father waits with open arms of welcome and forgiveness. Shall I run into his arms today? 

I am the prodigal’s older brother, regular at church, faithful in service, careful about my duties, insistent that all prodigals deserve law and order, not mercy. I stand with feet firmly apart and pistol ready to protect the family farm and the local religion from wayward and irresponsible and violent prodigals. But in the back of my righteous and well-ordered wardrobe, the father invites me to a new land where forgiveness reigns, where severity and self-protection give way to partying with prodigals. 

In Jesus’ story, I also become the father. If I look out the back of my wardrobe, I see a neighbourhood of people who need relationships and faith and life. Maybe it’s my turn to play the father, to come out of my closet, and kill the fatted calf, and light the barbeque, and throw a party for the whole neighbourhood. 

Let’s pray.

O Jesus, your stories invite us not to refine our theology, but to live our best lives, to move out of the narrow confines we live in, to explore the expanse of your country. O Jesus, touch our hearts with your stories, help us imagine the bigger and better life you offer. Help us find our way through the back of our wardrobe into the country where you are king. 

Amen. 

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

Ep.179: Psalm 79: War and Peace and Vengeance.

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

Today we look at Psalm 79, a wrenching lament for the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 586 B.C. A hundred years earlier, when the Assyrians attacked Jerusalem, God protected the city and sent the invaders packing. So the people concluded that they lived in God’s special city with God’s special temple, and that God would provide special protection forever.

The Babylonians, however, ran their cruel army right through the heart of that theory. Listen to the poet’s prayer:
  O God, the nations have invaded your inheritance;
      they have defiled your holy temple,
      they have reduced Jerusalem to rubble.
  They have left the dead bodies of your servants
      as food for the birds of the sky,
      the flesh of your people for the animals of the wild (v. 1-2). 

The poet implicates God in the disaster, pointing out that God failed to look after his people and his property and his religion. 

The poet also blames Israel for the disaster, saying to God,
  Do not hold against us the sins of past generations;
      may your mercy come quickly to meet us,
      for we are in desperate need.
      …deliver us and forgive our sins (v. 8, 9c). 

The poet believes that sin in generation after generation contributed to Israel’s great disaster. He asks God to forgive the sins, and to stop the generational consequences. Tellingly, he includes himself among the sinners as he says, “Forgive our sins.” 

The poet also blames Babylon, and pleads to God to take measureless vengeance on that nation. He says,
  Before our eyes, make known among the nations
      that you avenge the outpoured blood of your servants.
  Pay back into the laps of our neighbours seven times
      the contempt they hurled at you (vv. 11-12). 

Like the United States after 9/11, the poet had a deep feeling that the destruction should be avenged, quickly, purposefully, violently, completely. He did not suggest a moderate eye-for-an-eye and tooth-for-a-tooth justice–he wanted God to pay back the perpetrators seven times over. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, as I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace during the Covid pandemic, I am amazed by his vivid descriptions of violent battles, destroyed cities, looting peasants and soldiers, wounded and dying civilians and military as Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812. Like the destruction of Jerusalem in the poet’s time, the burning of Moscow left a stench in 1812, 9/11 left a stench in New York in 2001, and America left a stench in Afghanistan and Iraq. Will it never end, Lord? Do war and vengeance go on forever? 

We ask you, we expect you, to protect our country and our religion, for they are yours. But we see in this psalm your willingness to let empires rise and fall, to permit the endless suffering of war, to let even your holy places fall into ruin and decay, and to let your people suffer in the sufferings of the world.

O father, bring us to the place the poet came to in this psalm. A place where instead of planning our own vengeance, we wait for your judgement. A place where we are content to be the sheep of your pasture, and to praise you forever.  

Amen

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