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How Long, O Lord?

How long, O Lord? (Psalm 13:1)


This difficult season drags on and on. How is it affecting you? Are you growing frustrated? Weary? Sad? Depressed? We can easily look around and back at history and notice that many have had it worse—but that doesn’t exactly lift our spirits. Things seem bleak right now. We miss normal. We miss smiles and handshakes and hugs. We miss singing at church, and that quiet, distinct, lovely sound of communion trays passing through the congregation. We miss our friends. We miss family. Will such joys ever return? How long will this go on?

   

Psalm 13 is a prayer for such times. It is one of many psalms categorized as a lament, and it is meant to help us through bleak and lonely times. Learning to pray this way is important; otherwise we tend to grumble. You haven’t grumbled recently, have you? ;)  

    

It is often pointed out that gratitude is the antidote for grumbling, and I wouldn’t argue. Scripture teaches us to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18); and the practice of it certainly helps put everything in perspective. But that’s not to say that we shouldn’t also talk to God about the hard and unpleasant things. If you look to the Bible to learn how to pray, you find an abundance of lament: crying out to God in pain and struggle and loss. This, I believe, is as much an antidote to grumbling as gratitude is. It is often through the honest expression of sadness and frustration in prayer to God that leads our heart to truly trust him.

    

In Psalm 13, lament leads to trust. The feelings are voiced first—feelings of being forgotten, abandoned, humiliated, and sad (vss. 1-2). Then comes a very personal cry for help, addressing the Lord as my God and seeking to be considered, answered, and rescued (vss. 3-4). Then comes trust in the steadfast love of God and the confidence that there will again be cause for singing and rejoicing (vss. 5-6). Trust grows through the stages of prayer; so don’t skip lament. Talking through your most restless feelings with God will lead you to a place of peace in his presence.

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Why Go To Church?

Why go to church? It’s an important question for the time we’re in. Some of us, if we’re honest, have really enjoyed Sunday services at home. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing to admit. Sundays have been slower, more restful. There is no hurry to get ready, no concern for how you look, no hassle with hair or wind or traffic—just the anticipation of a few moments that lift our spirits and fill our hearts.

    

There is no question that God can use such a season to refresh and heal our sometimes hurried and restless approach to Sundays. It seems that he has been doing that in my own heart. But still, it needs only to be a season. God designed the church to be, well, exactly what the word means: an assembly, a gathering. Church is not just a spiritually uplifting and nourishing experience; it is the coming together of real people with all our wounds, struggles, heartaches, differences, quirky personalities, and wondrously varied gifts—all tied together in Christ. It’s harder and messier than virtual church, but greater.

   

Ephesians 4:1-6 is a hinge-point in a letter that says much about church. Paul urges Christians to walk in a manner worthy of the calling, which clearly, he sees as being lived in the context of fellowship with the people of God. Such a life-among-others is to be characterized by humility, gentleness, patience, and bearing with one another in love. We are taught to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (vs. 3). This teaching is a call to diligently guard against the countless things that so often divide people: politics, race, differing opinions, unforgiveness, self-centeredness, etc. Our Christian bond runs deeper. It’s also a call to be eager about something our Father is eager for: all his children being together as one.

    

Online gatherings are the best we can do right now, and we thank God for such a blessing. Even when church doors open, it will be wise for some to continue to stay home a while longer.  But, when the time comes to “go to church” (and only when it’s responsible for you to do so), remember that while an online experience has its upside, there is something greater: the harder and messier but profoundly more beautiful unity in which we see God “over all and through all and in all” (vs. 6).

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By the Waters of Babylon We Wept

One of the words used (overused!) to describe our current situation is “unprecedented.” It’s true that we are experiencing things that we may personally have never known, but it is equally true that the human experience throughout history has been filled with similar trials—including the history of God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments. We read in the Bible about times of famine, exile, cities under siege, plagues, and even house arrest (which is how some of us are feeling). While in many cases the events of the past were more severe than our current trial, many of the biblical passages from such times are more relatable to us today because of the ways COVID-19 has disrupted our world.

    

Psalm 137 is one those passages. It gives expression to one of the saddest and darkest experiences of God’s people: exile in Babylon. “Every line of it,” one writer explains, “is alive with pain” (D. Kidner). Especially the ending. But it’s also a psalm that is alive with hope in the midst of pain. The psalmist recalls the taunts of their captors and tormentors: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” (vs. 3)—that is, songs about a cherished time and place that used to be. Jerusalem and the temple had been destroyed and the people of God exiled to a foreign land. To require such songs in such a time and place was to add insult to injury.

    

For most of us, our current “exile” is minor by comparison. For others, especially those who have lost loved ones, or even jobs, the feeling is all too familiar: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song [in such a situation]?” (vs. 4). There are times when we can’t imagine singing the songs we once sang. Yet, (and this is where we learn from the psalmist) the people of God are “not driven to despair” (2 Cor. 4:8). Verse 5 and 6 of the psalm express a deep resolve to never forget the covenant faithfulness of God or to settle for any lesser joy than that which comes to the faithful people of God.

    

Having life disrupted in frustrating and devastating ways is not unprecedented in the least. That doesn’t make it feel better, but it does at least cause us to look back and see that in every dark and discouraging time that preceded this one, there have been those among God’s people who have held on to hope even when they couldn’t sing. Sometimes it’s the times when we can’t sing that remind us most poignantly of what it was we were singing about in the first place. 

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The Good Life

My work-from-home routine has come to involve a walk through the neighborhood during my lunch break. Every day I notice things about the place I live that—driving by in my pickup—normally don’t get a passing glance. Yesterday I crossed a street into a more affluent neighborhood. The properties were expansive, the houses were massive, and the landscaping was perfect. Even the birds in the professionally pruned trees seemed to sing better than the ones in my yard.

    

I found myself wishfully thinking about how wonderful it would be to have such a place to live. If only I had a front porch like that… or a view like that… or that shop in the back. Wouldn’t that be the life! Don’t get me wrong; I have a house and yard that I love. But still, don’t we all sometimes look across the street with a wish for something more?

    

Paul counseled a younger man, Timothy, saying: “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Tim 6:6–9).

    

This is not to judge people who have nice things. They have worked hard and may very well be among the most generous and hospitable people around. This is, rather, a warning to people like me who sometime are deceived into thinking that stuff satisfies. A discontented spirit will lead you into foolish and futile pursuits, and away from the things that really make for life.

    

Paul went on to counsel Timothy to flee from the cravings of such things, and—instead—to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called” (1 Tim 6:11–12).

    

This is hard to practice right now. In many ways it feels like the coronavirus is pulling the good life right out of our hands. It threatens our health and our financial situation. But, if the good life is really and truly something that no virus or other unfortunate event can take from us, then such times can help us shift our eyes from the futile to the fruitful—that which really makes life good. Godliness with contentment is great gain.

 

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Glorious Spring

It won’t be here for long, but for the moment I’m enjoying the sight of spring snow out my “office” window. Working from home on a cold, snowy morning with a thermos full of my favorite coffee is alright with me. I’m reminded to be grateful for a family that is healthy, for steady work and income, and for no lack of things necessary for life.


Not everyone has it so well at present. Some are out of work and feeling uncertain about things we all sometimes take for granted. Some are sick and suffering terribly. Some are grieving. Some are hungry. Some are alone and afraid. Some (heroes in ordinary work clothes) are hard at work today—at risk to their own heath—so that the rest of us can stay healthy.

    

I am reminded today of God’s word in Isaiah about snow: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11). The historical situation in which these words were first preached was more bleak than our own. There were devastating things to come; and yet, God was promising a future that was secure and unimaginably good. Just as we know that today’s snow will soak into the soil and soon make spring all the more vibrant, God reassures us that all of his promises and purposes prevail—no matter what devastation comes along the way.

    

The verses that come next in Isaiah require the use of our imagination, they break the bounds of what we know in the here-and-now. It is the vision of joy and peace so profound that mountains break out in song, trees clap their hands, and majestic evergreens take the place of thorn and thistle in a stunning reversal of the curse (Isaiah 55:12-13, Genesis 3:17-18). Can you imagine it?

    

In bleak and uncertain times, God reassures us with reminders that he works in ways far above our understanding and beyond our imagination. Indeed, even our “momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor 4:17, CSB). So as you hear the melting snow dripping off your roof today, let it remind you that a glorious springtime is coming. God has promised. 

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When You've Just Got To Do Something

Life without all the normal activities we are used to has a way of bringing hidden restlessness to the surface. Like that feeling you get in the elevator, waiting impatiently for the doors to close while repeatedly punching the door-close button. Then, when the doors finally close, time slows even more as you wait forever for your floor (and often awkwardly with strangers). Many of us grab our phones and find something to scroll.  


I read something recently that stepped on my toes (actually it was my thumbs). Referring to the method of scrolling news or social media on our smartphones, Justin Earley writes, “[Be] wary of the flicking thumb motion. The restless thumb often correlates to the restless heart.” Have you noticed this restlessness in yourself lately? Normally, when the stir-crazy feelings come, we go to the movies, or go shopping, or go to the gym, etc. But now, without all those options, we may find ourselves flicking our thumbs more (or something like it), searching for something to do with that inner restlessness.

  

Did you know that most of the door-close buttons in elevators don’t work at all? In some states, the law requires that such buttons work, but (on behalf of those with disabilities) they are on such a delay that they are pretty well useless—except for momentarily appeasing a person’s impatient, hurried, restless heart. Our phone screens are similar. Our world is full of activity and noise and stuff that we’re repeatedly convinced will settle that inner restlessness.

    

Psalm 127:2 says, “It is vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” The psalm reveals the futility and frustration of human activities and endeavors that don’t involve God. There is a hurried and busy way of living and working that never satisfies. And then there is God—who gives rest to those he loves. So, when you feel the urge to do something, anything to relieve those restless and unsettled feelings, don’t just find something to scroll. Truly, it’s a button that doesn’t work. Instead, turn to the time-tested habits that orient you to God: meditating on God’s word, praying, singing praises, counting blessings, pondering promises, etc. These activities are never “useless buttons.” 

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Growing in Solitude

What affect is social distancing having on your spiritual life? Many have noted the opportunities for renewed habits of devotion—reading, prayer, journaling, etc. It’s one thing to see such an opportunity; its another to seize it. And right now, spiritual focus may be harder than normal—even if opportunity abounds.


The swirling fears of a novel virus and pressing economic uncertainties squeeze their way into our already overcrowded anxious hearts and minds. Streaming Netflix or scrolling endless social media feeds may be easy and enticing distractions, but they don’t really calm our concerns or help us grow. On the other hand, focused effort in such times to let the word of Christ dwell in you richly is difficult—especially without the encouraging support of the gathered body of Christ (Colossians 3:16).  


In the world of sports (when it’s not canceled!), there is something called the home-field advantage. There is an enormous amount of evidence that teams of all kinds consistently win more games at home than away. At home, teams win about 60% of the time—which means that there is a determining factor beyond the capability of the players. Studies confirm the obvious: it’s due to the support of the crowd. A packed and noisy crowd of fans effectively functions as an additional team member.


Christian life at present and the spiritual battles we face in solitude may feel something like an “away game” at the moment. It’s harder without the energizing strength of the gathered church. But that doesn’t mean you have to lose! This can be a time of marvelous spiritual progress, because—like an away game—it tests your inner resolve and reveals hidden resources of strength. Sometimes you have to feel alone and outmatched to discover, as Paul did, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).


So, seize the opportunities you have now for spiritual growth. Don’t underestimate the way God uses solitude and silence. Draw near and listen to him. Strive repeatedly for spiritual focus. And, when you can, reach out and encourage someone. It has real spiritual effect in their life. 

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My Shepherd

In the headlines we find a steady source of food for our fears; but in God’s word we find food for our faith. What are you reading, consuming, and believing in these strange CoVID-19 days?


If I might make a recommendation, Psalm 23. There’s a reason it is one of the most memorized and cherished passages of scripture. Many of us memorized it as children; but is it still stored up in your heart? When is the last time you read through it slowly and prayerfully?


A series of reflections on the Twenty-Third Psalm by the late Dallas Willard was recently published in a book called Life Without Lack. At the beginning, Willard states that “[one] of our greatest needs today is for people to really see and really believe the things they already profess to see and believe” (emphasis in the original). In other words, to take the well-worn truths that we’ve been taught since childhood and give a good deal of thought as to whether we are living as if it is true. Take for instance the first line of the psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Willard remarks, “Unfortunately, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ is a sentiment carved on tombstones more often than a reality written in lives.”

    

Psalm 23 is often associated with death and dying, probably because it is read so often to grieving families at graveside services. While it is certainly comforting in such times, it is not primarily for those who grieve; it’s for those who fear. It is a song God has given us to sing in the face of whatever threatens our life. It is a song that feeds our faith in times when we are surrounded by things to fear. It is a song that helps us shift our focus from the gloom and doom that surrounds us to the sure promises and presence of God.

   

So, when you feel a little rattled by the news, take Psalm 23 with you to your prayer time. Consume it slowly. Perhaps you could try reading it aloud, emphasizing different words with each repetition of a line. Talk to God about your fears and listen carefully to what he is saying to you in the quiet, calm voice of this little psalm. 

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Anxious Times

Anxiety about the coronavirus is escalating. It has quickly moved from being a distant threat on the other side of the Pacific to the cause of widespread panic-buying and massive shutdowns that have begun to affect all of us. We have had a few good laughs over the run on toilet paper, but then there are the sobering headlines, stats, and predictions that make it all more scary than funny.


    What do you do when life is suddenly and overwhelmingly uncertain? Obviously, we want to take the necessary precautions; but then what? Do we obsess over the latest updates and gloomiest predictions, letting fear fester in our thoughts?


    I learned recently that Amazon Kindle tracks the books and passages that are most highlighted on e-reader devices. It is no surprise that the Bible is at the top of that list. In fact, there are several different translations of the Bible that rank among the most highlighted books. And in three of those translations, the most highlighted passage is the same: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7, NIV).


     Take those words to heart. They remind us that our faith in God is for “every situation”—even the one that occupies today’s headlines. While we are unsure of what tomorrow holds, we know that “the Lord is near” (Phil. 4:5). As we turn to him, God stations his own peace in our minds and hearts where fear and worry tend to creep in and have their way. So, let’s spend more time talking to God about this virus than feeding our fear with an overdose of news. Let’s occupy our thoughts, as the Philippians passage goes on to prescribe, with the excellent and praiseworthy certainties of God’s good news. And, with fear and worry out of mind, let’s give thought to how we can love and serve and care for one another and our neighbors as needs escalate.

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Spiritual Sync

You likely got a reminder last Saturday to move your clocks forward one hour for Daylight Saving Time. While such a reminder might have helped you prepare for a short night (or stirred up deep-seated resentment about the time change!), for many of us, the physical act of moving the clock forward or back is a thing of the past. Our cell phones (doubling as alarm clocks) and smartwatches do it on their own now, syncing automatically with GPS time.  


We use the word sync to describe the sharing of data from one tech device to another, but the concept is a spiritual one as well. In one of his letters to a first-century church, Paul writes about a kind of spiritual sync that happens between the Spirit of God and the mind of spiritually discerning disciples. He explains first that “no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2:11). But then, remarkably, he says, “Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who comes from God, so that we may understand what has been freely given to us by God. We also speak these things, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people” (1 Cor 2:12–13, CSB). Paul even goes on to describe the kind of profound spiritual wisdom-syncing that is possible for Christians, saying, “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16).


This doesn’t mean that we can be as smart as God; it means that God desires to share his wisdom, his thoughts, his mindset with us. He wants—and has enabled us—to see ourselves, others, and our world a way that syncs with who God is and forever will be. Such mature and godly thinking is possible—with the Spirit—but it is not automatic. It is “spiritually discerned” by those who give careful attention to the teaching of spiritual truths (1 Cor 2:13, 14).


Do you have a sense of being “out of sync” with God? Turn your attention again to spiritual things. Devote time for reading your Bible, spiritual reflection, prayer, and the study of spiritual truths with spiritual people.

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