Health and Wealth, Anyone?

I once heard a sermon entitled If God Loved Me He Would Give Me a Cadillac. The title was a spoof, of course. But many subscribe to the notion that abundant faith is certain to resolve critical health needs or lead to remarkable wealth.   

It is true that health and wealth are often side-benefits of the Gospel. A new believer may be delivered, whether instantly or by a process, from addictions that have been robbing him of health and his family of material support. As a result of this, the whole family begins to thrive spiritually, emotionally, and financially.  

Or, a woman eaten up by bitterness because of a failed marriage turns in desperation to the Gospel and may find peace in forgiveness and support from a caring Christian community. Soon, various symptoms that have been driving her to the doctors begin to ease, and her health is gradually restored.

In such situations, the Gospel has paved the way to health and wealth. But this isn’t its first purpose nor always the result, because the Gospel is still first of all a call to discipleship, whatever that entails. Think of Paul’s beatings, shipwreck, and imprisonments, for example. There are no first-century equivalents to Cadillacs in that picture. Instead, he suffered afflictions and beatings for Christ but released the life-transforming Gospel into much of the known world.

And remember these words of Jesus: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). 

This verse is at the heart of Jesus’ call to discipleship. The New Living Translation says it even more explicitly: “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must put aside your selfish ambition, shoulder your cross daily, and follow me.”

Put aside your selfish ambition? Renounce the ‘“me first” impulse so deeply ingrained within us? Say no to self-indulgence, the love of ease, the desire to be pampered? It all seems so grim, so demanding. 

And consider our being asked to shoulder the cross — an instrument of torture and death. Does our Lord then call us to seek suffering? Wouldn’t that make us appear a bit sick in the head? 

No, Jesus transformed the cross into a symbol of divine redemption through his suffering. It’s “the narrow gate” that led to his resurrection. And our lives are to be redemptive on a human scale.

It all seems forbidding until we read what follows in Luke’s account: “As (Jesus) was praying the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning” (verse 29). This is Luke’s report of the Transfiguration, on the Mountain.

In that moment, the disciples saw who Jesus really was: God in human flesh. Many years later Simon Peter recalled that moment and wrote, “We were eye-witnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’” (2 Peter 1:16b-17).

Peter added: “We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mount” (verse 18). Peter bears witness to the certain health and wealth the Gospel provides. 

Catching a glimpse of who Jesus really is changes his call to discipleship from a call to self-abasing, grim duty to one of ever-expanding joy in his kingdom’s service.

So to reiterate: It’s true that for many, the Gospel makes our lives here on earth healthier and wealthier. But that isn’t even close to the main thing. 

The wealth all are assured of in the Gospel is that of knowing God in Christ and experiencing fellowship with him. And the health that’s certain is the promise of eternal life — that informs our existence in this life and in the next.

Either we say yes to Christ and discover true health and wealth of the soul (with or without earthly prosperity) or we say no to him and deprive ourselves of the fullness of life that only he can give.

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Jesus Loves Me! This I Know

I paid a pastoral visit to an elderly retired minister. He had been a rugged man, a serious servant of the Lord in his pastoral days, but now he was failing in health and was suffering.  

My attempt to converse with him was not successful. He was moaning in distress and didn’t seem aware that I was there. So I sat down beside him and began to sing:

Jesus loves me! This I know,
For the Bible tells me so;
Little ones to Him belong;
They are weak, but He is strong.

He was instantly silent and appeared to be listening with his very soul. He remained more alert to his surroundings even when my singing ceased. I offered a prayer for him and his wife and departed. I was awed by the calming and nurturing effect of four lines of simple Christian poetry written to a simple tune a century earlier.

“Jesus Loves Me! This I Know” is a song Christian parents often introduce their little ones to at a very young age. Of our 13 great-grandchildren four are toddlers, not yet three years old: Isabel, Nora, Julia, and Naomi.

They are all at a stage where they often use simple words or sentences, sometimes surprising the adults around them. Isabel, the oldest at almost three, can sing the entire song. Nora can also, though not yet so clearly. I am told that the parents of Julia and Naomi, the two youngest toddlers, sing this song to them every day, at bedtime.  

Learning “Jesus Loves Me” is highly appropriate. Remember that Jesus himself in Mark 10:14 said: “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them.” Then Mark continues, “And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them” (v.16).

But this little song is appealing to more than just young children. In 1962, the famed Swiss theologian Karl Barth gave a lecture to an audience at the University of Chicago. At the close of his lecture, a student asked him if he could simplify the essence of his profound lecture to a few words. Without hesitation, Barth replied, “Jesus loves me! This I know, for the Bible tells me so.” 

Even now it seems remarkable to me that Professor Barth would use two lines of a simple children’s song to encapsulate the two fundamental aspects of Christian revelation — the Bible and Jesus. That is, the Written Word and the Living Word. 

As the Hebrew letter states: “The word of the Lord is alive and active” (4:12).       

What is intended here by the term “word” is the whole of the Christian Scriptures.

In one sense all who have been truly born again (that is, made spiritually alive by the Holy Spirit) are children of God’s kingdom. And there are occasions in our lives when we all need to be reminded that Jesus loves us as children in his kingdom, for the Bible tells us so.  

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Persistence in Prayer: Our Best Hope

Living under a sense of injustice is one of the most corroding experiences to the human spirit. It can trigger unrelieved anger, cynicism, a desire for revenge. Or it can bring on depression, lapses into passivity, or an ongoing preoccupation with a burning grievance.  

Jesus knew that his followers would face injustices of many kinds, and that during some periods of their history injustice would be more intense than at other times. That is why his followers needed teaching about how to respond. 

According to Jesus, in Luke 18, the first response to injustice in life should be prevailing prayer. He said to his followers that “they should always pray and not give up” (v. 1).

Then, to underline the point, he told them a story about a woman seeking justice.  

The judge in the story was both godless and cold toward human need. We can guess he was available only to people who could pay up. 

But the woman who needed his help was a widow, completely on her own. The only one who could help her was this judge, who lived across town, but she could not pay. What to do?

The widow trekked across town, knocked at the judge’s door, and waited. The judge’s clerk opened the door, saw at a glance the marks of her poverty, and slammed the door. She had no chance to present her plea.

But the next morning, though weary, she made the same trek. This time the judge’s assistant directed a mouthful of abuse at her and slammed the door again. For several days she got the same response. But she kept on. 

Then came a surprise. One morning the judge’s assistant greeted her with a legal paper in hand. It assured her of the protection she needed. Her persistence had won for her the security she had pleaded for. 

Why did the judge yield to her repeated entreaties? It was not that his heart had warmed. Jesus explained that the judge had yielded because he began to fear that if he didn’t meet her need she might even attack him. The constancy and intensity of her asking had won her case!   

Why then dwell on injustices that cripple our spirits? If a heartless judge can be moved to do the right thing by persistent appeals, why not believe that unceasing prayers to a loving Heavenly Father, offered earnestly and repeatedly, will bring justice in this world or the next (Luke 18:6-7)?

Jesus then attached this question (v. 8): “When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” That is, will there be believers who are practicing intense prayer to overcome the injustices that plague them? 

This was Jesus’ searching question to his disciples two thousand years ago, and it is still addressed to his followers today. We must answer it individually.

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Re-post: A Jolly Plane Ride into the New Year

WestJet

In uncertain times, you would not expect to be treated to comedy while buckled into an airline seat soon to hurtle through the skies at an elevation of five miles above the earth.

But that is what happened a few years ago when Kathleen and I flew from Toronto to Tampa, Florida, on a morning flight. The departure was delayed by an hour because of a minor mechanical problem.

During that time, the passengers, mostly seniors, sat waiting quietly in the boarding area. Then the wheelchair brigade was first taken aboard and seated. When the rest of us were settled in our seats, the pilot appeared at the bulkhead of the cabin, smiling, with mic in hand, and the merriment began.

He announced that the flight was ready to depart but feigned confusion about its destination. He asked a man seated near the bulkhead, “Where’s this flight going?” This brought a ripple of laughter from the passengers. He then put us at ease by explaining the delay and giving various flight details.

Then came the flight attendants’ routine to inform us about seat belts, seat backs, tray tables, life jackets, and overhead bins. One of the three attendants had taken her place at the bulkhead to demonstrate the procedures while a second one out of sight added instructions over the public address.

Her first announcement welcomed us aboard Flight 2088, which she said nonchalantly, was headed for Yellowknife (the capital of the Northwest Territories, 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle).

“If you are not satisfied with the services of this airline,” she went on cordially, “there are six exits on this plane.” Straight-faced, the attendant doing the demonstration pointed out their locations. The laughter was genuine but not loud.

The attendant on the mic instructed us that should there be any need to use the oxygen masks while in flight they would drop down automatically. We were to put them on over our mouth and nose, pull the elastic band over our heads, tighten the straps, and wear them for two weeks.

At that point the attendant in the aisle held up a big yellow life jacket and slipped it over her head, tying the strings. Should we be required to use these jackets, the voiceover said, we could keep them as mementos, courtesy of the airline.

“If anyone is caught smoking in the restrooms in flight,” she went on, “they will be asked to leave the plane immediately.”

Then came her last bit of instruction. “If you find that the services of this airline do not meet your expectations, we suggest you lower your expectations.”

Kathleen and I had had the same flight attendant a week earlier for our flight from Tampa to Toronto, and she had treated us to the same light-hearted, comedic spirit. On that flight she told us the following story.

Three airline pilots were walking along a beach when they spotted a bottle in the water. They picked it up, uncorked it, and out came a genie who said, “You each may have any wish you ask for.”

The first pilot said he would like to be smarter than his two buddies on the plane, and his eyes were suddenly bright with superior intelligence.

The second said he would like to be more intelligent than all the other pilots serving that airline, and he too was filled with wisdom that appeared to change his countenance.

The third said he would like to be smarter than all the pilots in North America — and he was instantly changed into a flight attendant.

I read recently that children laugh about eight times more than adults on any one day. Here’s your chance to even the score, remembering, with the writer of the Proverbs, that “a merry heart doeth good like a medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones” (Prov. 17:22 KJV).

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Will It Be Secularism or Faith in 2021?

For thirteen years I was pastor of a congregation that met across the street from a Christian college. I had many contacts with the students and heard their varied life experiences. It was during the years when faith-denying influences were attempting to supplant Judeo-Christian foundations with a faith-denying secularism.

Some conversations were about happy things — like wedding plans. Others had to do with working through highly personal problems. Yet others were about distressing circumstances and the need to find the best path forward. I carry the memories of many of those conversations to this day.  

One campus event, however, seemed to stun the whole student body. A member of the basketball team took a bad fall during a game. Unconscious, he was rushed to the local hospital and then transferred to a university hospital in St. Louis, Missouri. He died from a massive brain hemorrhage.

A pall fell over the college when his death was announced. Death wasn’t supposed to be a part of these young lives. Some were silent. Some asked, “Where is God in this?” Students came two or three at a time to a prayer room at the church. 

Why such an unyielding pall? Possibly because young people are geared for life, not death. Youth is for action, growth, new experiences, and long-term dreams. Death is generally not considered a reality to be reckoned with.

That shocking event took place more than fifty years ago. In our present era a shock of vaster proportions than the college death has struck us close at hand. It affects the whole of North American culture. Covid-19 has brought the word “death” back into daily conversation.

What can secularism say to this word? It may try to reassure by explaining that the percentage of deaths, as the virus works its way through communities everywhere, is relatively small even among the elderly. Also, we hear that science is coming to the rescue with effective vaccines. We are profoundly grateful for good news. But in spite of these blessings, secularism has nothing to counter death generally. 

A few days ago I discussed this matter with a well-informed friend. Why the increase in suicides, depression, a general undercurrent of uneasiness? I wondered. It’s a complex question. Among the answers is a deep-below-the-surface fear of death.

My friend’s opinion was that secularism has been settling on our culture for decades and is inimical to Judeo-Christian foundations. As a consequence, there is no place for death in life’s sequence of events, although death is destined for all.

This in turn brings forth the inescapable question for those without faith: After death, what then? Oblivion? Endless sleep? Some sort of vague reckoning? Secularism has no satisfactory answer. Therefore, for those in our own culture without faith the question about death is often met with denial or silence.  

I write as a Christian. I believe that hope for this life and the life to come is the twin blessing promised to those who have a living faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus said to the grieving Martha when she wept over her brother Lazarus’s death: 

I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. (John 11:25-26)

Christianity does not dismiss or diminish death. Its reality remains for all. But a living faith in the Lord Jesus, who indeed conquered death, removes the sting of death and gives the promise of joy at the end of our earthly journey.

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Re-post: Questions for Mary, Jesus’ Mother

Saint Luke tells with amazing brevity the story of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to the Virgin Mary: You are to be the mother of the Messiah. Mary’s initial response, her subsequent visit with cousin Elizabeth, and her beautiful song of worship are all recorded in few words (Luke 1:26-56). 

And so there is a lot we do not know. Were responses in the rest of her family and community as serene and poetic as Mary’s? And what about her parents? After all, how could such an announcement from a young, unmarried woman fail to land with jarring impact? 

How did Mary’s mother find out about her daughter’s pregnancy? What was her first response? Imagine if a teenage girl today should say to her mother, “An angel appeared to me yesterday and told me I’m going to have a baby without any man’s involvement.” And how did her father take the news?

Then there’s Joseph, the man she was pledged to marry. Matthew tells us simply that Mary “was found to be with child…” (1:18) Had her parents told Joseph, or did she tell him herself?  

In Matthew 1:13-25 we see that, however he got the news, at first he was understandably upset. His immediate impulse was to break the engagement (actually to divorce her according to Jewish customs at the time). But he would do so as quietly as possible so as not to subject her to public disgrace.

An angel had to appear to Joseph in a dream to change his mind. He then took Mary into his home, though they were not intimate, Matthew tells us, until after the baby was born.  

And what was Mary’s state of mind during all of this?

Then I’m curious about Mary’s trip to be with her aged cousin, Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56). It is likely that Elizabeth and Zechariah, her husband, lived in Hebron, a town some distance south of Jerusalem, and 80 miles or more from Nazareth.

How does this carefully chaperoned young woman (according to the customs of the times) get from her home to that distant place? One assumes she walked. But was it with her father? Or a caravan of travelers? Where would she have stayed overnight during this three- or four-day trip?

Then, after staying three months with Elizabeth, she returned to Nazareth. How did the community respond to her now-obvious pregnancy? And how would Mary have dealt with probable shunning and scorn?  

I believe Luke, the careful historian, would have known the answers to these questions. He says his research had been thorough (1:3). Years later he may have visited with Mary in Ephesus where the Apostle John is said to have taken her to live out her days. 

If he had such firsthand information, why did he not tell us? It must be because he isn’t writing a novelette to portray human conflict and struggle. He’s reporting on the coming of God into our world in human form. And on the Virgin Mary’s willingness to be the servant of the Almighty in bringing into the world the Messiah. Above all, he’s writing the story of redemption. Joy is the dominant note.

Only later, a man named Simeon, a devout worshiper of God, prophesies to Mary that later in her life her suffering will be great as a part of this mission, telling her “a sword will pierce your own soul, too” (Luke 2:35).

So, what does all of this say about Mary? There’s no indication in the gospel accounts that Mary was to be worshiped or treated as other than one of us. But she is to be deeply admired as a devout young Jewish girl who has kept herself pure and is selected (with her assent) by the Almighty to be the bearer of the Messiah. 

We have many unanswered questions. But, during Advent, Mary should be held up as a model of openness to God’s will. Her response to Gabriel’s announcement rings down the centuries: “I am the Lord’s servant, and I am willing to accept anything he wants. May everything you have said come true” (Luke 1:38 NLT).

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Why Was the Priest Punished?

When I first read about the penalty of silence the angel Gabriel imposed on the aged priest, Zechariah, the punishment seemed too severe. Had he not merely asked the angel for clarification? 

Let’s review the story, as found in Luke 1. Zechariah was on duty at the temple in Jerusalem. He had been assigned by lot to offer up incense in the Holy Place next to the Holy of Holies. A great number of worshipers were in prayer outside. This was a sacred moment.

Suddenly the angel Gabriel appeared to the right of the altar of incense. He addressed Zechariah, who was gripped with fear. 

The angel told him that his prayer had been heard and he and his wife, Elizabeth, were going to have a son, who was to be named John. Across the years the couple must have offered up many seemingly unanswered prayers for a child. Perhaps by the time of this announcement, they had given up on this prayer since Elizabeth was past childbearing years. 

Gabriel then unfolded the promise: You will be filled with joy. Many will rejoice with you. This will be a special child. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth and will bring spiritual renewal to Israel. It will be as though the prophet Elijah has come back to bring spiritual healing to a nation in distress. The angel’s speech is full of promise.

The aged Zechariah then asked a simple question: How can I be sure of all this? My wife is aged; I’m an old man. He is understandably perplexed in the face of facts.

The angel responded rather sternly: I am Gabriel, he said, and I stand in the presence of God and I have been sent with this good news. But because of your cool response you will be unable to speak until all I promise has come to pass. 

There’s no question about the priest’s character nor of that of his wife. Both are descendants of Aaron, Moses’ brother, who was the father of the priestly line for Israel. 

In addition to this excellent pedigree, here are the couple’s credentials: Both are righteous as God sees them. They take seriously the laws he has given his Chosen People. From all appearances they are solid and upright Israelites. 

Even so, they have a great heartache. Across a long marriage they have remained childless. Elizabeth has not been able to conceive, and they are now both advanced in years. Gabriel’s message should have awakened joy.

My initial lack of understanding about the angel’s severe sentence would have been relieved if I had read the account more carefully. What reason does Gabriel give Zechariah for the penalty he has imposed? “You did not believe my words,” the angel pronounces. Unbelief!

Despite all of the priest’s ritual observances and faithfulness to his priestly duties, Zechariah reveals an unbelieving heart. He’s not wicked. There’s no trace of bitterness. But a living faith has been diminished deep within, perhaps beaten down by unfilled expectations. Gabriel’s words have come too late, Zechariah must be thinking. He is infected with a hidden distrust of God. 

The Bible has an unusual amount to say about this condition. The psalmist, for example, thinks back to memories of God’s people and their wilderness journey, and says: How often they rebelled against God in the wilderness (Psalm 78:40). They had mistrusted God’s messages repeatedly.

Jesus, our Lord, faced unbelief in his followers frequently. They often completely missed or resisted the truth even though it was given to them by the Incarnate Son of God. On one occasion Jesus said to a gathering: “But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe” (John 6:36). 

And a generation or so later the Christians addressed in the Hebrew letter are warned of this condition: “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has an unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12). Unbelief has been a peril from Jesus’ time right to the present.

But it is a correctable condition. Many months after Gabriel rebuked Zechariah, the baby arrived. On the day of his circumcision and naming, neighbors and friends have gathered, assuming that the child will be named after his father — Zechariah. That was a deeply ingrained cultural custom. 

Elizabeth says, “No, he is to be called, John” (Luke 1:60). They turn to Zechariah, sure that he will favor his own name. Instead, he writes on a tablet, “His name shall be John” (1:63).  

That was the name ordered by the angel at the altar of incense many months earlier: Instantly Zechariah’s speech returns, and he is filled with praises recorded in Luke 1:67 and following. Unbelief has been reversed and a living faith restored.

It can be so for any today when faith grows cold, too. As with Zechariah, unbelief can be recognized and replaced with God’s fresh gift of a vital faith.

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Image info: The Angel Appearing to Zacharias by William Blake, 1799–1800 (Public Domain)

Re-post: Why Do We Celebrate Advent?

Why do we so carefully observe the four Sundays leading up to Christmas? What exactly are we celebrating for a month beforehand? We are joyfully anticipating the coming of the Messiah — Savior, Lord, Son of God.  

There’s the story of Mary, the teenage virgin who was to become the birth mother of our Lord. The angel, Gabriel, brought her the news. And there is the account of Zechariah, the aged priest, who, while on priestly duty at the altar of incense in the magnificent temple, was also visited by Gabriel.

Mary was told that, though a virgin, she would bear a son who would be the Savior of the world. The angel’s news to Zechariah was that he and his “older adult” wife, Elizabeth, were to be favored by the miraculous birth of a special son — known to this day as John the Baptist — and this in spite of their advanced years.

These are fascinating accounts, and all would agree that they make wonderful Sunday school material for children during the Christmas season. But, do they speak of actual happenings at a specific time in history?

It was the physician Luke who reported the primary advent stories and so he is the one to ask: Is this actual fact? He answers the question in the opening paragraph of the gospel account in the New Testament that carries his name (Luke 1:1-4).

Those of us who read his account only in English translation may not know that Luke wrote in the splendid classical Greek of a highly educated man. The beginning of his account is the longest sentence in the whole of Scripture. In that sentence he sets forth carefully what he intends to accomplish in his gospel account.                                     

Permit me to break down and paraphrase that one long sentence into a series of shortened sentences that state his purpose:

Truly remarkable things have happened. Many others have tried to capture the story in writing. They’ve gathered their details about these unusual events from first-hand observers. 

I have done my own careful investigation of everything from the outset, leaving nothing out. So it seemed a good idea for me to write my own account of what has happened.

I’ve done this for you — most excellent Theophilus — with a special purpose. I want you to be even more certain than you are now of the things you have already been taught.

Does this sound like Luke intends to support a myth? No, he emphasizes careful investigation, meticulousness, corroboration with eyewitnesses, and comparison with other first-hand accounts, and that from all of this he is creating his personal account. All of this is for the purpose of supporting the truth that his reader (Theophilus) already believes.   

Luke is self-consciously attempting to record history. Sacred history. He is regarded by most impartial scholars today as “one of the very best and most reliable historians of antiquity” (New Bible Dictionary, p. 756).

He wants to report what actually happened, avoiding inaccuracies. He knows his story can’t be authentic without details of the miraculous elements in the account.

And this is the key to the celebration of Advent. Our celebration is rooted in history. It’s about events that really happened. Advent is a holy season because we believe these things happened miraculously. Zechariah and Elizabeth really did receive a child, John, against the impossibilities of nature. And Mary was indeed the virgin mother of the one who became the world’s saviour, Jesus the Christ.

So in Advent we celebrate the historically-grounded coming of God in human form. He came as a real person, to be worshiped by his followers as fully human and fully divine. He came into a real world, blessed by resplendent beauty and scarred by the darkest of sins. He came to bring redemption through a perfect life and a sacrificial death.

For those who embrace this truth and declare themselves his followers his coming is threefold: he came in an historical moment; he comes to the hearts of his followers wherever they are; and he will come again to rend the skies and declare his universal lordship over all.

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A Psalmist’s Dry Spell, and How He Recovered (Part 2)

Last week, I imagined that the writer of Psalm 42 began writing his spiritual complaint while watching a deer search for a fresh source of water. He compares the deer’s desperate search with his own search for God.  

He is yearning for a sense of God’s presence to be restored to him. He is lamenting a spiritual dearth of heart-felt communion with the Lord. Last week, I presented his problem and then moved fairly directly to resolution that comes at the end of the psalm. This week, let’s look again, but focus on the center of the psalm.  

My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon — from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. (42:6-7)

Earlier in the psalm, seeking relief from his yearning for the divine presence, the psalmist had called up joyful memories of public worship in Jerusalem — the city he loved (v. 4).

Now, in the portion quoted above, he appears to be transported by memory and imagination to Northern Israel. He visualizes the lofty snow-capped Mount Hermon rising gloriously above the horizon; the flooding Jordan nearby cascades over its successive drops, often overflowing its banks after heavy rainfall.  

The air is filled with the thunder of tumbling waterfalls. In one sense, nature speaks of only what is seen. But she also often calls forth a response of the human soul. Thus, he writes:

Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. (v. 7)

God has many ways of speaking to his disconsolate children. Often, when we are impoverished by separation, loneliness, or doubt, the mystery of God breaks upon us afresh in the wonders of nature. 

After the demonstration of nature’s wonders the psalmist’s spirit seems to brighten. It seems that he has been made aware briefly of the imponderable wonder of nature’s God. And at the same time the mystery of his own humanity, created by God and made for the worship of him. Thus, deep indeed calls to deep.

And there is further reassurance:

By day the Lord directs his love; at night his song is with me — a prayer to the Lord of my life. (v. 8)

In his quest, the majestic mountain and tumbling waterfalls seem to dispel the shadows. Then, he affirms that the Lord is with him whether in the brightness of the day or the shadows of the night. He can sing to the Lord of his life even in the darkness. But he is not yet freed from one unanswered question:

I say to God my Rock “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?” My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, Where is your God?” (vv. 9,10)

His burst of faith hasn’t yet told him what he also wants to know: Why am I not protected from the enemies of faith? The skepticism of his foes seems not to go away. The question is there all day long. 

So where does this psalmist end his quest? How does he get relief from the residual dryness of his faith? Where all questions of faith should end: with a burst of determination to trust God in hope of better days. As I often heard in my childhood, “We trust God even where we cannot trace Him.”

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed in me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. (v. 11)

Amen!

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A Psalmist’s Dry Spell — and How He Recovered (Part 1)

A psalmist, feeling forlorn and far from Jerusalem, the Holy City he loves, sits in front of his cabin. He watches a deer across the field, moving in and out of scrub trees, searching for water. The psalmist reaches for his writing tablet.

What can be going on in this lonely stranger’s life? What prompts his sudden reach for his tablet? Imagine with me.

This must be a believer who feels strangely disconnected from his God, his spiritual source, and is therefore in distress. He writes:

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?

Four times in the first two verses he makes reference to God, once even calling him the “living God.” That is, God is no mere idol, but a Living Presence. But it doesn’t seem to help.

My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, Where is your God?

His emotions run deep, and he thinks, some friends! They taunt him because he has temporarily lost his sense of faith as a living reality. A cup of cold water or a few words of encouragement would have been better. 

The psalmist reviews the past.

These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng.

He has known days of glorious worship with his fellows. And public worship had in the past been deeply enriching.  

In summary, it appears that the psalmist now feels alone. His associates are discomfiting; he has been cut off from the rejoicing throng whose company once strengthened his faith. Yet he talks to himself in the language of hope.  

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.

He does what people of faith often do; he confesses to God and himself his discouragement but then looks to the future, telling himself that days of praise will be restored and that will be his hope. People of faith who come upon what some call “dry times” fan the embers of faith in this way and carry on trustingly until assurance is restored.  

The psalmist knows his distress is only temporary. Faith will return. He can rest in that certainty. And with him, we too can say in times of discomfort and uncertainty: “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”

 Amen!

(We will continue our trip of imagination through Psalm 42 in the next blog.)

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Photo credit: magnetismus (via flickr.com)