What’s the plan?

None of what has happened over the last two weeks has been according to my plan. I wasn’t planning to have the church close its doors. I wasn’t planning to cancel my haircut because salons are closed. I wasn’t planning to have my kids home for what they are happily treating as an extended Spring Break.

Thinking of plans brought this Bible verse to mind:

I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. – Jeremiah 29:11

Ever heard that verse? I often see it on graduation cards, and every time it makes me cringe a little. Why? Well, when it’s pulled out all by itself, without the rest of the context, it sounds like God might be speaking to a specific person, promising a grand future. But when it’s all read in one with the rest of the paragraph?

The Lord proclaims: When Babylon’s seventy years are up, I will come and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. When you call me and come and pray to me, I will listen to you. When you search for me, yes, search for me with all your heart, you will find me. I will be present for you, declares the Lord, and I will end your captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have scattered you, and I will bring you home after your long exile, declares the Lord. -Jeremiah 29:10-14

God is speaking through the prophet Jeremiah to all the people of Judah, to Jerusalem and its surroundings, not to an individual. God is assuring them that although Babylon will win this battle, destroying Jerusalem and the Temple itself, God plans to restore the scattered and exiled people to the Promised Land. More than that, God promises to be present for the people even in Babylon.

Now, that was a huge deal. For centuries, the people of Israel thought of God as being present in the Temple in Jerusalem. Period. Now, with the Temple destroyed, God was coming through in a new promise: to be with the people even in their exile, scattered and far from Jerusalem.

I don’t know about you, but I can really relate to that these days. Being unable to gather at church, at the library, at the park: well, maybe it’s melodramatic, but I feel a little exiled. It is reassuring to know that God has a habit of being present even to God’s scattered people. Even when we are scattered, away from our usual place of worship, God is present with us. At home, in the car, on your back deck: God is with you.

I have to believe that God’s plan for us is also a plan for a hope-filled future, and a plan that we will once again be gathered together from all the places we are separated. Meanwhile, God listens when we pray. God is with us when we scatter. God is present when we seek.

Lord God, I trust that you are present with me even when I feel alone. I trust that you listen when I pray. When I have been scattered away from familiar places and people, comfort me and gather me close to you. Help me trust your plan. Amen.

Manna From Above, or, How Grocery Shopping Became an Accidental Spiritual Practice

This devotion is based on the story of the Israelites in Exodus 16. I encourage you to read that story before you read the rest of the devotion. You can find it online here if your Bible isn’t handy. The reflection first appeared on my Facebook page a few days ago. It has been revised and updated here.

I went grocery shopping earlier this week. We were out of sugar, cheese, and eggs, so off I went.

Carrying my freshly disinfected basket (thanks, Family Foods, for cart wipes and hand santizer!), I noticed that while there was plenty of food in the store, there were also plenty of empty shelves. Should I go back, I wondered, and get a cart? A cart, after all, could hold more food, and even if I didn’t really need it now, my family would surely eat it eventually, pandemic or no.

Now, here’s a thing you might not know: we pastors think theologically about *everything.* My reusable shopping bag was along because of my commitment to stewardship of the earth God made. I shop local when I can because I believe spending my money in my community is a way to love my neighbors, keeping them employed.

As I looked at that basket, contemplating how much more could fit in a cart, I thought of the Israelites in the Wilderness. After God freed the Israelites from Pharaoh, they spent a long time wandering through the desert on their way to the Promised Land. Naturally, they got hungry. Naturally, they whined when they were hungry.

So God gave them manna (a flaky bread) and quail every day except the Sabbath, and commanded them to gather what they needed each day, but to gather a double portion on the day before the Sabbath. Now, some of the people were scared or greedy or something, so they gathered extra every day- and it spoiled right away except on the day before the Sabbath. The day after the Sabbath, the manna and quail arrived once more, and the people ate.

I looked at my basket. I thought of the manna. I thought of my mostly well-stocked kitchen. I resolved that if I could not fit my groceries in the basket, I did not need them today. There would be manna for tomorrow, and the next day.

It was fairly easy to keep my resolve at first. There was plenty of sugar on the shelves, plenty of jam, plenty of cereal, plenty of cheese… and there were two dozen eggs of the variety I buy. My basket had room for one dozen, probably two if I balanced them carefully…

I remembered that I was not the only one who might run out of eggs that day. I told myself that there would be manna tomorrow. I left the second carton of eggs on the shelf. It was harder than it should have been, as the instinctive survival part of my brain urged me to stock up, trust in the manna and concern for my neighbor thrown to the wayside.

No, I reminded myself, there will be manna for tomorrow and the next day. I have enough. My neighbors may need eggs.

It is not easy to remember our neighbor’s needs when we could put ourselves first, especially in times of crisis. Our brains are wired for survival, not for sharing. As Christians, God calls us to put our neighbor’s need equal to our own, to take only what we need. This doesn’t come naturally, but with practice, we learn to trust.

Christians, let’s dare to trust the manna-giving God to give us enough in the days ahead. When necessary, we should prepare, certainly, as the Israelites did on the day before the Sabbath, but not in excess or selfishness or greed or fear. There will be manna for tomorrow and the next day.

Our neighbors may need eggs.

God who gave Israel manna in the wilderness, give me what I need today. Give me enough food and enough faith, enough trust and enough toilet paper, so that I can make it to tomorrow. Help me to love and care for my neighbor, daring to put their needs equal to mine. In your holy name I pray. Amen.

Loving God and the “Least”

[Jesus said], “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ … ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ “ -Matthew 22:37-38

[Jesus said] “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ “ -Matthew 25:34-40

Toward the end of February every year, Lutheran Services in Iowa (LSI) sponsors something called Lutheran Day on the Hill. From 9 to 2:30 in Des Moines, Lutherans from around Iowa meet. We gather first at Capitol Hill Lutheran Church, where we hear a devotion and some presentations about the way upcoming legislation could affect LSI’s work in our communities. Then, we walk three blocks to the Capitol, where we try to meet with our representatives to share with them our hopes and concerns for LSI’s future ministry. A few weeks ago, nearly 300 Lutherans gathered in Des Moines, including several from Cedar County.

The idea of Christian legal advocacy makes some people uncomfortable; “Don’t we have a separation between church and state?” they might ask. Or “I certainly think Christians should help people, but I’m not sure what the government has to do with it.” These are serious questions, ones we need to wrestle with. How should a Christian relate to their government? Should a Christian vote, or say the pledge of allegiance, or run for office? Believe it or not, there are American Christians who come down on each side of those and many more questions.

Here’s where I’ve landed: I’m convinced that when Jesus instructs us to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, that means that every single thing we do should reflect our love of God: how we spend our time and money, how we relate to other people, and, yes, even how we participate in politics.

So this year at Lutheran Day on the Hill, I went to the presentation about children’s mental health care access. I learned that in 2018, LSI provided 12,138 hours of therapy to children and adults in Iowa, and 138 children successfully completed residential treatment. That’s a lot of children’s mental health care provided by LSI! I learned that Governor Reynolds has been a strong advocate of access to mental health care for children, creating the state’s first ever board to oversee and recommend children’s mental health care policy. Unfortunately, I also learned that no funding has been allocated for children’s mental health care, making the LSI workers wonder how to provide a service no one is paying for. I learned that there is bipartisan support for increasing mental health care access, even while there is disagreement about how to do so.

Most importantly, I saw nearly 300 Lutherans who also care about children’s mental health doing their very best to love God and neighbor by communicating with their senators and representatives about what matters: caring for the ones Jesus calls “the least of these.” Of course, we don’t just do these things to try and make sure Jesus sits us at his right hand in glory- no, we love God and our neighbor as well as we can because Jesus has already promised us a seat with him, and now we want to live out the love so all people’s needs are met.

Jesus, king of heaven and earth, help me live in a way that shows my love for God in every part of life, and teach me to love all the members of your family as dearly as I love you. Amen.

Known by name

But now, says the Lord—

the one who created you, Jacob,

the one who formed you, Israel:

Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you;

I have called you by name; you are mine.

-Isaiah 43:1

 

Jesus said to her, “Mary!”

-John 20:16

 

Like many American teenagers, I was required to take a yearlong U.S. history course in high school. On the first day of school, second period, my history teacher announced to the newly assembled class that we’d have our first quiz on Friday. Uh, what? What were we supposed to learn in four days?

It would not be a history quiz, he explained. The quiz was this: on Friday, he’d hand out a paper with the classroom laid out on it, including where all the students sat. We would then fill in the paper by labeling the chair with each student’s correctly spelled first and last name. Now, there were just over 1000 students in my high school. We hadn’t all grown up together. We didn’t know all of one another by name. Certainly I didn’t know how to spell all their names.

Was it Kati Larsen or Catie Larson or Caity Larssen? We needed to keep straight Matt and Matthew, not labeling them what they didn’t want to be called. An incorrect spelling, noted the teacher, would be marked incorrect. No partial credit. Even for a single class of students, this was going to take some work.

Naturally, we all spent the whole week practicing the names, writing them out and being sure we could match the name to the person. By Wednesday, I had two-thirds of the names down, spelling and all. By Thursday, I was pretty sure I could keep the three Chrises and the Sara/Sarah pair straight. By Friday, I was ready to label every student and the teacher by first and last name. For the rest of the year, in fact for the rest of high school, I had no trouble remembering those students by name.

There’s power in being called by the correct name, isn’t there? It shows, at the bare minimum, that the other person has put the mental energy into connecting our name with our face. It makes us feel known and remembered. Being called by name makes us feel like we matter.

In the Bible, we hear many stories of God calling people by name. When God calls by name, it shows how well God knows the identity of that person or group.

That’s why we baptize by name. God isn’t interested in loving and forgiving any generic sinner; God is interested in loving and forgiving Carol and Dana and Martin and Erik and Frankie and Malik and Ali and Fatima and Yuri and… well, you get it. God calls us by name. God knows us by name. God loves us by name.

As Christians, when we call someone by name, it’s not just recognizing who they are as an individual, but also who they are as children of God. They’re not just a generic neighbor, they’re Lydia. He’s not just some coworker, he’s Patrick. She’s not just somebody who goes to church here, she’s Mandi. Our names matter. When we can’t be bothered to learn someone’s name, we send the message that we just don’t care very much. Yes, that includes spelling! No partial credit.

But even if no one else can remember our names, we are called by name by God. God knows your name. God forgives you by name. God loves you by name. God, the one who created and formed you, calls out: “Don’t fear! I have redeemed you. I am calling you by name. I love you. You are mine.”

God, I thank you that even with all the people in the world, you know my name. Thank you for calling me by name as your dear child. Teach me to see each child of yours as you do: beloved and called by name. Amen.

Who Sings Prays Twice

“[Anyone] who sings prays twice.” – attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo, 354-430

[A heavenly voice said] “This is my Son… listen to him!” -Matthew 17:5

When you’re sad, is there a song you like to listen to? For me, it depends on how sad I’m feeling. Slightly sad, and I just need to sing along to some showtunes, then I’m feeling better in no time. If I’m very sad, however, showtunes won’t do. In deep sorrow, I need the quiet, familiar music of hymns. “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” for some reason I can’t quite put a finger on, is especially soothing when I’m troubled.

Of course, sad music is different for everyone. I have a friend who listens to German metal whenever he’s feeling particularly overwhelmed. What do you like to listen to when you’re sad? Can you describe what it is about that song or musician that gives you relief?

Music is powerful, isn’t it? It allows us to express so powerfully not only what we think but how we feel about it. Whether we feel love, sadness, anger, jealousy, delight, or any other emotion, there’s a song for every feeling. In fact, there’s probably a song in every musical style for every feeling, from country to classical, from rap to rock-n-roll.

Music is so powerful that Augustine, an early Christian writer and bishop, is reported to have said that anyone who sings prays twice. Both the words and the music behind them express our needs. Think of this: you know the hymns Amazing Grace and O Little Town of Bethlehem? Both can be sung to the Gilligan’s Island theme song. Try it. Now imagine sitting together on Christmas Eve, singing O Little Town of Bethlehem to that tune. It’s just plain wrong.

The other great power of music is that it sticks with us. Visit any nursing home with a locked dementia unit. The residents won’t be able to tell you what they had for breakfast, but I guarantee they’ll sing along with the popular music of their childhood. (I shudder to think of my generation in our old age, remembering only the lyrics to “Single Ladies.”)

Music allows us to express what seems inexpressible and to make deep connections with what we sing. That’s part of why we sing parts of our worship service each Sunday- so that we remember “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us” even when we forget exactly what the sermon was about.

That deep power of music is also why it matters what music we listen to. Now I’m not about to say that you should only listen to hymns, because there are all sorts of meaningful and important songs out there that we would never use in worship. You might ask yourself, though: is this the song I want to remember when I’ve forgotten everything else? Is this song expressing something I feel right about? What we hear, especially in the music that settles into our bones, shapes us. When we listen to Jesus, that shapes us, too, as we hear the declaration that we are forgiven and loved.

God, I thank you for the gift of music. Let the songs I hear and sing shape me according to your will. Amen.

By Our Love

Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. – Holy Baptism, ELW p. 231

[Jesus said], “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:35

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, 40 days before Easter. Lent has traditionally been a time of focused spirituality and reconnecting with self, neighbors, and God. Some people fast, or give up something, in an effort to be more deliberate about what they put into their bodies and minds. (I’ve known people to give up everything from chocolate to single-use plastics to swearing!) Almsgiving, or the practice of giving to those in need, forces us to broaden our perspective to see the suffering around us. Prayer connects us more deliberately to God. Some Christians follow the same Lenten disciplines each year; others pick something new each year. Lent lasts until Easter, about 6 weeks of focused spiritual disciplines. (If you’re wondering why it adds up to more than 40 days, it’s because Sundays aren’t counted. Weird, huh?)

In seminary, my friends and I had a silly tradition: after Ash Wednesday worship services, which we had usually been helping lead, we’d go out for dinner just to enjoy the funny looks we’d get from other diners on account of our ash-smudged foreheads. It wasn’t exactly in keeping with Jesus’ command to pray and fast secretly, not for the attention of other people, but it was oddly satisfying. Especially, we’d grin whenever another table would come in, their foreheads marked with an ashen blot, and we’d exchange knowing glances: we knew why each of us had dirty faces. It was Ash Wednesday, and for that one day, Christians were easily recognizable by the cross we wore.

Most days, there’s no easy way to tell who’s a Christian and who isn’t. Sure, you might see somebody wearing a cross necklace, or perhaps a pastor in a collar or a nun in a habit, but by and large, you can’t tell a Christian apart by looking at them. Even though we’re marked at baptism with the cross of Jesus Christ, that’s an invisible marker, not something we can look at every day. It’s also true that some of Christianity’s most visible members have also been its least flattering, from the crusaders to the Westboro Baptist Church. So how will everyone know who’s a Christian, if you can’t tell by looking and the public examples aren’t always great?

On the night before he died, Jesus told his closest friends, the disciples, that the way to identify followers of Jesus is simple: by the love they have for one another. That’s it. Not by ashy crosses once a year, not by WWJD bracelets, not by any other outward symbol: just by love. At their best, Lenten disciplines nourish love and let it grow. Whatever someone does for Lent– praying daily, giving to charity instead of their Netflix subscription, quitting smoking, you name it– these are things that matter not because they make God love us, but because in some way they show our love to the world.

Last week, Valentine’s Day reminded us that we can love only because God loves us. Jesus’ words remind us that the love we show is the firmest evidence that we are following him. The cross we wear, visible on Ash Wednesday and hidden every other day, is the promise that we are loved and chosen by God. The world will know we are Christians because of our love.

God, help me to love you, love my neighbors, and love myself. Let the cross of Christ be shown in my love. Amen.

Let it all be done in love

The Bible has a great deal to say about love. By some counts, the word love appears 365 times- enough to read a different one each day of the year. Here are a few examples:

Let all that you do be done in love. – I Corinthians 16:14

“God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.” – John 3:16

The man answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” – Luke 10:27

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” -Matthew 5:44

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:38-39

Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. – I John 4:8

Love, clearly, matters to God. The letter we know as I John (which, to confuse things, is not the same as the gospel called John) goes so far as to say that God is love.Today is Valentine’s Day, so love is on the minds of many. From the kids making cards for their classmates to sweethearts sending each other flowers, from friends spending time together to family members making an extra call to say “I love you,” many people take today to share love.

There are many, many ways to show love and many, many kinds of love. Did you catch the Super Bowl ad from New York Life about love? If you didn’t, it’s worth taking a minute to watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IpwXQ3FdBEo

There is love between friends, the love of romance, the love of family, love that gives without thought of what it will get in return. Love shows up in all sorts of places, reflected in so many different faces.

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Now, the simple fact is that some people share love more easily than others. Some people accept love more easily than others. Relationship experts talk about love languages: the different ways we show and receive love. Some give gifts; others give hugs; still others give compliments. All give love.

As Christians, we are called to love everyone, not just the ones we love easily. More difficult still, we are commanded to “Let all that you do be done in love.” That means do the dishes with love. It means navigate traffic with love. It means vote with love. It means talk to your coworkers with love. It means treat your cashier with love. It means comment on Facebook with love. It means talk about people you don’t like with love. It means from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep, let everything that you do be done in love.

Now that’s a tall order. Every moment of every day; every thought, word, and deed; let all be done in love. How? We love because God first loved us. – 1 John 4:19

Love for our neighbors at any moment, let alone every moment, is possible only because of God’s love. The love we share is God’s love, overflowing through us. Hear this: when you feel like you don’t have enough love to share, what you need is to be reminded that you are loved. Someone you know who doesn’t seem to have any love to give needs more than anyone to receive God’s love from you. You love because you were loved first. God loves you” today, tomorrow, and every single moment of every single day.

God of love, fill me with your love so that I can share your love with others. Your love changes everything. Amen.

Salt or just plain Salty?

salty, adj. SAL-tee: tasting strongly of salt, or slang: tough, aggressive, getting annoyed out of proportion to the problem; example: “I don’t know why he was so salty about that referee’s call on the play.” or “You don’t have to get so salty about changing your plans.”

Jesus said, ““You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” -Mt. 5:13

You are the salt of the earth.

I have never heard of salt becoming flavorless. Have you? In the spirit of scientific inquiry, I decided to find the oldest salt I could get hold of and taste it, to see if there was any loss of flavor. I got up from my desk and went down the hall to the church kitchen, where I found a salt shaker with the expiration date 08-18-13. Seven years out-of-date salt seemed good enough for this experiment, so I shook a bit into a bowl. It looked like salt. Cautiously, I tasted it. It tasted like… salt.

Refined salt, the kind we buy at the grocery store, well, it turns out that it can’t go bad sitting in a container in a cupboard. The chemical makeup of pure salt, aka sodium chloride, is quite stable. There is a catch, however:

The kind of salt Jesus and his disciples used wasn’t Morton Iodized- it was impure, mixed with other minerals in big chunks rather than the finely ground stuff we sprinkle on our soup. That kind of salt, if exposed to humidity, like the climate around the Sea of Galilee, could lose its saltiness: the sodium chloride would evaporate into the moist, warm air, leaving behind a flavorless lump.

We aren’t flavorless lumps, right? No, of course not! Jesus says we are the salt, and so that is what we are. Do not worry that you are going to be thrown out and trampled underfoot: you are the salt of the earth.

As I was reminded when I tasted that out-of-date but not out-of-flavor salt, though, salt on its own is, well, gross. Nobody sits down for dinner and eats a plate full of salt. Yuck! We do not want to be too salty. This is especially true in the slang sense of the word: followers of Jesus shouldn’t be aggressive or easily annoyed, getting salty every time something doesn’t go our way. No, salt is at its best when it adds to the flavor of something out, when it enhances and emboldens good food that’s already there.

We followers of Jesus are salt for the earth. When we are in just the right balance, our thoughts, words, and actions enhance the words and actions of Jesus Christ, bringing life to the world. If there’s too much of us, Jesus can be drowned out by our saltiness. If there’s too little of us, Jesus can seem bland.

Now before you get worried about just how much salt is the right amount of salt, let me remind you of a couple of things: God created a diverse world. Some people like a lot of salt. Some like just a little. That’s okay. In Jesus Christ, you are refined and pure salt, just enough as he has made you. When we follow his call, our saltiness enhances everything we do.

Jesus, I thank you for making me salt of the earth. Help me to use my saltiness for your service and glory. Amen.

Backwards, Upside Down, and Inside Out

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? -Romans 6:3

If there is an odder question in the Bible, I don’t know what it is. “Don’t you know,” writes Paul, addressing a group of Christians he’s never met in this letter sent to the church in Rome, “that the beginning of our life in Christ is death?” Didn’t anyone tell this fledgling Christian community that life, real life, true life, authentic life, only comes after death? Haven’t they heard, don’t they understand, that for the Christian, death is only the beginning, that we join the death of Jesus through baptism?

Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. -Romans 6:4

There is something about our baptism into Christ that unites us with both his death and resurrection. We have died. And yet we are alive. In a letter to a different Christian community, Paul put it this way:

“…it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” -Galatians 2:20

If we live (and, I assume, if you’re reading this devotion, you have a pulse and some brain activity), we live because of Christ in us. Paul sees his entire life as animated by the life of Jesus Christ and the breath of the Holy Spirit alone. Death comes through baptism, then life in the body of Christ.

To be honest, I’m not always sure that I understand this. It seems so backwards. Death, then life? That doesn’t make much sense. Next thing you know, Jesus will say something like “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first,” or “blessed are you who mourn.” Oh wait. He did say that, didn’t he?

Life in Jesus does not make sense, at least not according to the world’s way of thinking. In the Kingdom of God, the losers are the winners, and the winners go home without even getting a participation trophy. In the Kingdom of God, the dead live and Jesus warns that “those who want to save their lives will lose it.”

The Kingdom of God, in other words, is backwards, upside down, and inside out. Who would sign up for being last, for being the loser, for death? Only people who have taken a look inside and realized that they are last, least, losers. When we see our sin, our brokenness, and not just our own but the world’s sin and brokenness, too, when we realize that there’s nothing about us that could make God love us, when we figure out that we cannot earn the life that we need, when we either become desperate or try to fix it all ourselves, that’s when it happens. God does it again.

God turns everything inside out and backwards. Unlovable sinner? Not to God! See, here, a beloved and forgiven child of God, all because of Christ living in them. And there, in your mirror: a beloved and forgiven child of God, all because Christ lives in you.

God, show me the ways you work that are different from my own. Open my eyes to your inside out, upside down, backwards way of doing things so that I see the life you give to me and all your children. Amen.

Praying the Psalms

The Psalms have been called the “prayer book of the Bible” because they have prayers for just about any situation. There are prayers of trust, like the well known twenty-third psalm: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” There are prayers of praise: “Give thanks to the Lord because he is good. God’s faithful love lasts forever!” (Ps. 136:1). There are psalms of repentance, too: “Create in me a clean heart, oh Lord… my sin is always before me.” (Ps 51). There are even prayers of despair:

Lord, God of my salvation,

by day I cry out,

even at night, before you—

let my prayer reach you!

Turn your ear to my outcry

because my whole being is filled with distress;

my life is at the very brink of hell.

My eyes are tired of looking at my suffering.

I’ve been calling out to you every day, Lord—

I’ve had my hands outstretched to you!

You’ve made my loved ones and companions distant.

My only friend is darkness.

-Psalm 88:1-3, 9, 18

 

Ever felt that way? In the grip of despair, it seems, someone long ago wrote a prayer that still resonates to this day with people facing grief, depression, or loss. If you have time, read the whole psalm to really hear what that writer was feeling. Have you ever felt that way? Or do you know someone who has?

This time of year–this late-January, middle-of-winter, dreary season– can be hard on a person’s spirit. Even if things are mostly okay, we can find ourselves in a funk. When that happens, whether it’s in January or July, we might feel that we need to cry out. But will God hear us?

Yes. The very fact that this psalm is included in our Bible is evidence that God expects and wants us to express our deepest sadness just as easily as we give thanks and praise. We don’t have to restrain ourselves when we talk with God. If you’re sad, be sad. If you’re joyful, be joyful. If you have doubts or questions, express them. All these emotions and more are found in the psalms, so why would we think we can’t express them to God? Your God wants to hear it all from you: the good, the bad, and even the ugly.

Then comes the hard part: trusting God with our full selves is hard. Trusting and sharing those things with other people, even at church, where we should be able to be open and authentic, is harder. But these psalms, these prayers: they remind us that we are never alone, that no part of us is too extreme for God, and that other people have felt this way, too. When we borrow the words of the psalms for ourselves, we can express what we feel and what we need, and God is listening.

Lord God of my salvation, by day I cry out, even at night, before you– let my prayer reach you! Turn your ear to my outcry. You lead me in paths of righteousness for your name’s sake. Create in me a clean heart. Amen.