Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Little Something Extra... Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Two Very Different Prayers

In today's Gospel (Luke 18:9-14), Jesus tells us the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, two very different people who sent up two very different prayers. Let's revisit this familiar parable and take a closer look at it.

First off, Jesus directs this parable to a particular audience, namely, “those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” He is talking to people who are overconfident, who think they can do no wrong, who are positive of their own salvation, who feel that they don't need anyone else. These people tend to feel superior to others who just don't have everything together like they themselves think they do. 

Pause for a minute here, and honestly answer the following question: “Is Jesus talking to you?”

Jesus begins by setting the scene. Two people entered the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector. Now the Pharisee was a religious leader. He held a strict interpretation of the Law and tried to follow its precepts to the letter, even adding further precepts and traditions as necessary to try to achieve holiness. The tax collector, on the other hand, was the lowest of the low as far as the Jews are concerned. He collaborated with the Romans to collect the prescribed taxes from his fellow Jews, and perhaps, like many other tax collectors, he padded his own pockets a bit, too. Tax collectors were forbidden to participate in public worship and were generally treated as outcasts.

These two men prayed very different prayers. Listen again to the Pharisee:

“O God, I thank You that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.”

Talk about arrogant! All the Pharisee was doing is making a list of his good qualities and his good deeds (and putting down the rest of humanity in the process). He wasn't really praying to God; he was praying to himself. 

Now listen to the tax collector, who prayed standing far back in the Temple with his eyes lowered:

“O God, be merciful to me a sinner."

His prayer was simple but beautiful, humble but effective. He placed himself before God as he really was. He knew his true state, and he asked God for mercy. 

Jesus is clear about which prayer is more pleasing to God. “I tell you,” He says, “the latter went home justified, not the former...” God justified the tax collector because of his humble repentance and heartfelt prayer. This man was now in a right relationship with God. God had forgiven his sin. The Pharisee, on the other hand, was not justified. He may have thought he was in good standing before God, but he wasn't because of his pride and lack of love. 

Jesus ends with a lesson for all of us: “...for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Once again, pause and take a moment to honestly answer the following question: Do you pray more like the Pharisee or the tax collector? 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 88

Psalm 88 is actually quite a depressing psalm, at least at first glance. The psalmist, who is identified in the inscription as Heman the Ezrahite, feels like his life is falling apart. The whole world is crashing in on him. He is living in darkness, and he feels as though he is close to death, like God has forsaken him and is pouring wave after wave of terrors over him. He senses the heavy hand of God's wrath, and he sorrows over it. It almost seems as though God has cast him off. His companions, too, are far from him. They have forsaken him and shunned him; he has no support in the world. 

This is a dire situation, but Heman is a wise man. In the midst of such trials, fear, and sorrow, he could choose to do several things. He could become angry and resentful, cursing God and people. But he doesn't. He could fall into despair and become suicidal. But he doesn't. He could give up on trying to do good and live like a heathen, thinking only of eating, drinking, and being merry, no matter what the cost. But he doesn't.

What Heman does is turn to God and ask for help. That's what this psalm is, a cry for God's help. Heman begins with a prayer: "O Lord, God of my salvation, when at night I cry out in Your presence, let my prayer come before You; incline Your ear to my cry" (verses 1-2). Take note of a few things about these two verses. First, Heman is claiming God as his own. No matter how much he suffers, God is still his God. He is still in a relationship with Him. Further, God is the God of his salvation. The Hebrew word for "salvation" is yeshuah. We've seen this one before. It is the Hebrew version of Jesus' name. Heman, of course, did not know that, but the Holy Spirit Who was inspiring him did. In any case, Heman believes that God can save him and deliver him from all his misery. Third, Heman realizes that he is in God's presence. God may seem far away, but He isn't. He is right next to Heman, and Heman has access to Him. He begs God to listen to him, and since he keeps right on speaking, he seems confident that God will and does hear.

In the next few verses, Heman pours out his troubles. He sets them all before God with a sincere and open heart. He holds nothing back, not even his feelings that all the things that are going wrong in his life are caused by God. "For my soul is full of troubles," he moans, "and my life draws near to Sheol" (verse 3). All he feels is pain and anxiety and distress, so much so that he feels as though he is drawing near to death, to that shadowy underworld of Sheol where the Israelites believed that the souls of the dead lingered. Remember that Heaven was not yet open, for Jesus had not yet died and rose again to save people from their sins and bring them into eternal life in God's presence. So the Isrealites didn't have much to look forward to after death. It was a gloomy state, and the psalmist feels like he is fast approaching it.

He also feels like God has forsaken him and allowed him to go off to meet his fate, to lie among the dead with no help and to be remembered no more (verses 5-6). He is cut off from God, and worse yet, he feels like God is angry with him. "Your wrath lies heavy upon me," he tells God, "and You overwhelm me with all Your waves" (verse 7). It seems as though he could drown in his misery, as troubles and pain crash down upon him one after another continuously, like waves breaking upon the shore. 

What's more, he has no one to comfort him. "You have caused my companions to shun me," he says to God, "You have made me a thing of horror to them" (verse 8). Everyone is gone. He can turn no where for help and solace. He feels trapped, closed in, alone. 

Yet he continues to call on God. "Every day I call upon You, O Lord; I spread out my hands to You (verse 9). He cries out for God's help, stretching out his arms like a child reaches toward a parent when he pleads for comfort and consolation. He asks God some questions. Do the dead praise You, Lord? Do they declare Your love and faithfulness? Do they proclaim Your wonders? Do they announce Your salvation (verses 10-12)? No, he implies, they do not, but I do. Even in his pain and fear, he does all of these. He praises God and speaks of God's amazing attributes and the marvels He has worked for His people. He remains faithful to God.

In verse 13, he prays once again. “But I, O Lord, cry out to You; in the morning my prayer comes before You.” The Hebrew for “cry out” is shava, and it literally means to cry or shout for help. In the first verse, the psalmist recalls that he cries out at night. Here he cries out in the morning. His prayer is constant, day and night. 

Again, he questions God, wondering why God has cast him off and hidden Himself (verse 14). He feels horrible, he again complains, as though he is almost dead. Overwhelmed by God's wrath, he feels as though a flood is closing in on him (verses 15-17). What's more, he says again, he has been abandoned by his human companions (verse 18). 

The psalm ends right here in the midst of Heman's lament. It does not reach resolution, and we can only hope that Heman eventually found peace. Perhaps the Holy Spirit left us hanging so that we might question ourselves and our lives. Do we bring our troubles to God? Do we maintain a relationship with Him even when everything seems to be going wrong? Do we pray even when we feel like God is angry with us? Do we cry out to God day and night, asking for help? God is waiting for us in the best of times and the worst of times. We all need to imitate Heman and bring all our distress to Him.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Little Something Extra...Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sacred Scripture

In today's Second Reading, St. Paul reminds Timothy about the nature and purpose of Sacred Scripture. Let's listen again to his words.

All Scripture is inspired by God 
and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, 
and for training in righteousness, 
so that one who belongs to God may be competent, 
equipped for every good work. 

Catholics have long been accused of failing to know and appreciate Sacred Scripture. This is simply not true. Catholics who attend Sunday Mass regularly hear large sections of the Gospels and epistles and a good part of the Old Testament. Those who attend daily Mass hear even more. We Catholics may not be able to quote chapter and verse, but we know the story of salvation history that is told in Sacred Scripture. 

That being said, however, Catholics could always use a little boost in their knowledge of the nature and purpose of Scripture. Sacred Scripture is the inspired and inerrant Word of God. Let's break that statement down. First, Sacred Scripture is inspired. Even though human beings had a hand in writing the Scriptures, God is the primary Author of the Bible, for the Holy Spirit inspired the human authors. Vatican II's document on Scripture, Dei Verbum, puts it like this: “In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted” (#11). 

Because God is the primary Author of the Scriptures, they are true. Dei Verbum plainly says, “...the books of Scripture must be acknowledge as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings...” (#11). God does not lie, and He does not make mistakes. Therefore, what God writes, is always true and is never in error. Does this mean that we will always understand the Bible? Of course not! There are many difficult sections and things that don't make sense to our human minds. There are even things that seem as though they can't possibly be true. But they are. 

To understand the Scriptures, we must read them in the same Holy Spirit in which they were written. We must invite Him into our hearts and minds and ask Him to open the Scriptures for us and teach us His meaning. 

Further, we must recognize that Divine Revelation is not limited to Sacred Scripture. This is a major point of contention between Catholics and Protestants. Protestants claim to believe in sola Scriptura, that is, Scripture alone (although they are perfectly fine with accepting terms like “Trinity” that are not found in the Bible). Catholics acknowledge the supreme importance of Sacred Scripture, but we realize that God also communicates with us through the Sacred Tradition that has been handed down in the Church since the days of the apostles. Here's what Dei Verbum has to say about Sacred Tradition: “Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the people of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes” (#8).

The early Church lived and grew on Sacred Tradition, for the New Testament didn't even exist until years after Christ rose from the dead (scholars debate a lot about dates). The Church was already a Church, and she already prayed, worshiped, preached, taught, and administered the sacraments before the apostles wrote even one word about Jesus. Part of that lived Sacred Tradition was written down in the New Testament but not all of it. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the apostles wrote the story of Jesus, instructions for the Church, and prophecies for the future, but other aspects of the faith remained oral. They were practiced and lived rather than written down. 

The Scriptures, however, should still be a major part of a Catholic's life and faith. We need to read the Bible every single day, even if all we read is a few verses. Why? Once again, we turn to Dei Verbum for our answer. “For in the sacred books, the Father Who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life” (#21). The Bible is a love letter from God to each and every one of us. It is personal. Through it, God reveals Himself, even gives Himself to us, and provides us with a boost in faith and spiritual energy. 

Indeed, as St. Paul says in today's Second Reading, the Bible is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work. So pick up a copy of the Sacred Scriptures and dig in!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 87

Psalm 87 is just a small psalm, but there's a lot of meaning squished into a little package. The psalm opens with a song of praise for the city of Zion or Jerusalem. “On the holy mount stands the city He founded; the Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God” (verses 1-3). For the Israelites, Jerusalem was the center of the universe, the place where God deigned to dwell among His people in a very special way in the Temple. His presence was there day and night, and the Israelites worshiped Him there according to His decrees. Association with Zion was an honor, for it indicated association with God. Those who went to and came from Jerusalem had access to God, for they could visit the Temple and at least enter into the outer courts, knowing that His presence was within. 

This is why the psalmist is careful to associate himself with Zion in verse 4. He was born in Jerusalem, and such a distinction is a great honor. Even the foreigners he encounters know his origin and whisper about it amongst themselves. They seem to understand that the psalmist possesses something great, something they don't have and can't quite put their finger on. 

But the psalmist knows the secret. He says in verse 5, “And of Zion it shall be said, 'This one and that one were born in it'; for the Most High Himself will establish it.” Zion is special because it is God's city. God Himself, the Most High, has set it up and made it firm. He provides for it and directs it, ordering all things for its good. To be born in Zion is to be under that special favor of God. It is to be in a relationship with Him. 

Even God recognizes the special nature of those who are part of His community at Zion. “The Lord records, as He registers the people, 'This one was born there'” (verse 6). This one is part of His intimate family. This one has a special connection to Him through the place in which He has chosen to dwell. This one's name is written in God's book with an important notation; this one is from Zion.

This is a cause for celebration, as the last verse notes. “Singers and dancers alike say, 'All my springs are in you.'” The Hebrew in this verse would be better translated as “singers and those playing instruments,” but the point is the same. Being born in Zion, having a connection to God's city, being part of His family is something to celebrate, something to sing about. And what do these happy people sing? “All my springs are in you.” The Hebrew word for “springs” is ma‛yânâh. Figuratively, it refers to a source or fountain of satisfaction. Every good thing comes from Zion, which is merely shorthand for every good thing comes from God. All happiness. All joy. All beauty. All goodness. All truth. All love. Every good thing comes from God. 

This psalm gives rise to a couple critical questions. First, what about Israelites who were not born in Jerusalem? Were they somehow second class citizens within the Israelite community? Not at all. Every Israelite had a special connection to Jerusalem, for every Israelite had a special connection to God. As members of God's covenant, they were part of God's family. Their home was wherever God was, and for the Israelites, that was Jerusalem where His presence filled the Temple. Because they were members of God's covenant people, they were all natives of Zion. 

Second, what about Christians? How does this psalm help us understand our relationship with God? The Jerusalem Temple is long gone, destroyed in 70 A.D. Few, if any, of us look to the city of Jerusalem as a home place, however interesting it may be historically or culturally. But we, too, are part of God's family, for we, too, have entered into a covenant with Him. God has given us a new covenant through Jesus Christ and a new Jerusalem, the Church. When we are baptized, we are accepted into our new home and family. We dwell with God, and God dwells with us. 

The Church has gotten a bad rap lately. Yes, the Church is made up of sinful people who sometimes do horrible things. But the Church herself is holy because she is God's Church. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church is the homeland and household for all Christians. What is said of the city of Zion in this psalm can be applied to the Church, too. God loves the Church as He loved Zion. Glorious things can be spoken about her because she is God's dwelling place. The Most High Himself has established her, and He makes her stand firm amid all the trials and scandal that threaten her. He records her members in the register of the peoples. Belonging to the Church is a great honor, for in the Church we have access to God's great grace poured out through the sacraments. When we enter God's Church through baptism, God enters our souls. We can receive God Himself, Jesus Christ, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, in the Eucharist. We can feel God's loving mercy in Reconciliation. We can experience an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Confirmation. We can bask in God's healing touch in the Anointing of the Sick. If called, we can mark our lives with God's grace through Marriage and Holy Orders. The Church is God's city, God's house, the new new Jerusalem. This is reason to celebrate. Singing and dancing, we should imitate our ancestors in the psalm by crying out, “All my springs are in you!”

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Little Something Extra...Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time


In today's First Reading, 2 Kings 5:14-17, we hear the tail end of the story of Naaman, the great Gentile army commander who was healed of leprosy. It's worthwhile, however, to revisit Naaman's full story, both to set our reading in context and to pull out of it as much meaning as possible.

Naaman was in the service of the king of Aram, a region located in modern Syria. Naaman was a highly-acclaimed military leader with victories to his name. But he had one big problem to mar his success. He was a leper. 

Apparently, Naaman was at a loss to find a cure for his affliction, but he received a good piece of advice from an unlikely source. During one of Aram's raids into Israel, Naaman had captured a young Israelite girl who now served as a slave to his wife. The girl told her mistress about a prophet in Samaria (in the northern part of Israel) who could heal Naaman of his leprosy.

Naaman must really have been desperate to listen to the advice of a slave girl, but he did. Obtaining leave from the king, he set out for Samaria, not to try to find the prophet but to visit Israel's king. He carried with him several extravagant gifts (as if he could purchase his healing) and a letter from the king of Aram to the king of Israel. 

The king of Israel welcomed Naaman into his presence, probably quite reluctantly considering that Aram had been perpetrating raids in Israel. When the king read the letter Naaman handed to him, he had a minor meltdown. The letter said, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” The king's reaction was understandable: “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” 

The prophet Elisha, the man whom the slave girl had been talking about, heard about the king's dilemma and sent word to the king to have Naaman come to him. Naaman came, but he never saw Elisha. The prophet sent a message to Naaman with some instructions and a promise, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”

Naaman was angry! He had expected the prophet to come to him and perform some sort of magical spell, calling on God and waving his hands. He couldn't accept the fact that all he had to do was go and wash in the Jordan. “Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?” he whined, “Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” His pride was wounded. He wanted some special treatment. After all, he was a famous army commander. 

Naaman's servants saw the situation more clearly. They said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, 'Wash and be clean'?” To his credit, Naaman recognized the common sense in these words. He swallowed his anger and his pride, and he went down to the Jordan and immersed himself seven times.

Sure worked! Naaman came up out of the river with skin like a baby. His leprosy was gone. Perhaps some of his stubborn pride was, too.

Naaman returned to Elisha with gratitude and gifts. He was still thinking in terms of material possessions, but at least this time he was offering them in thanksgiving. Elisha didn't care one bit about Naaman's presents; he refused them all. Perhaps it was enough for the prophet to hear Naaman's words: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel...”

Naaman accepted Elisha's refusal easily enough and asked him for two mule-loads of earth. He intended to worship God and only God from here on out, and he figured he'd better have something physical to connect him to Israel. He further asked Elisha for a dispensation of sorts. Since Naaman was still in the service of the pagan king of Aram, he foresaw that sometimes he might have to enter the house of another “god” and bow down beside his king. He asked for pardon ahead of time. Elisha quickly granted it. He understood Naaman's situation and apparently saw the sincerity in his heart. “Go in peace,” the prophet said. 

The Church deliberately organizes the lectionary so that the First Reading and the Gospel correspond somehow, through foreshadowing, similar themes, etc. Today's Gospel is Luke 17:11-19. Take a few minutes and reread it slowly, keeping Naaman's story in mind. How do the two readings correspond? How does Jesus fulfill the story of Naaman and bring it to a higher level? 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 85

Psalm 85 incorporates remembrance, prayerful pleas, and confident hopes into one beautiful song that reminds us of God's great love and mercy.

The psalmist begins by remembering God's past favors to Israel. "Lord, You were favorable to Your land;" the psalmist prays, "You restored the fortunes of Jacob" (verse 1). God once accepted Israel, the land and people of Jacob (Hebrew râtsâh – also to delight in or take pleasure in). Israel was His special possession. He brought them out of captivity in Egypt and led them into the Promised Land, restoring them to their place of freedom as His children rather than slaves of the Egyptians. 

Further, as the psalmist reminds God, "You forgave the inquiry of Your people; You pardoned all their sin" (verse 2). God certainly had plenty of opportunity to forgive Israel. The people complained at every step of the way on their journey through the desert. They whined and sniveled and carried on, and worse yet, they made an idol for themselves and worshiped it shamelessly. But again and again God forgave them. The Hebrew word used here for "forgave" is nâśâ', which literally means to lift, carry, or take. God took away Israel's sin, lifting its burden off the people and carrying it away. The psalmist reiterates his point with a different twist by using the word "pardoned," which in Hebrew is kâsâh, to cover, engulf, hide, and overwhelm. Sin is engulfed by God's love and hidden far away, covered up, overwhelmed by God's mercy. It will never again be uncovered and brought out in the open unless people choose to embrace it and bring it to light.

The psalmist continues in verse 3, "You withdrew all Your wrath; You turned from Your hot anger." Yes, God had been mad at His people just like a father gets angry when his children do stupid, dangerous things that threaten their well-being and the well-being of the people around them. The Hebrew suggests how upset God really was. The word translated here as "wrath" is ‛ebrâh. It literally means fury, rage, and an outburst of passion. God's anger was burning hot, fierce, but He turned it away and withdrew it. We live in a culture that likes to focus on God's great love and mercy, and this is a good thing unless such an emphasis ignores God's justice. God cannot and will not tolerate sin. He is quick to forgive the repentant sinner, but He also punishes sinners who stubbornly remain in their sin.

Apparently, Israel was once again mired in sin when this psalm was written, and God is once again angry with his people. On behalf of his people, the repentant psalmist asks for God's mercy: "Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away Your indignation toward us" (verse 4). Notice that the psalmist is asking God to repeat what He has done in the past, namely, to restore Israel and to avert His anger. The psalmist chooses the same word for "restore" as he used in verse 1, suggesting that Israel may be in some kind of captivity, perhaps not literally but certainly figuratively, a captivity to sin. The people need God to free them from the slavery to sin and lead them out of their destructive vices. The word used for "indignation" is ka‛as, which suggests vexation or anger. When applied to God, the word often refers to anger caused by people's worship of other gods, so we have a hint about what Israel's sin actually was...idolatry. 

The psalmist continues with pleading questions in the next two verses: “Will You be angry with us forever? Will You prolong Your anger to all generations? Will You not revive us again, so that Your people may rejoice in You?” (verses 5-6). He sounds like a child pleading with an angry parent. Please don't be mad forever, Daddy! Notice, though, what he wants God to do for the people. He desires God to revive them. The word for “revive” is châyâh, which literally means to restore to life. The Israelites are dead in their sin. Only God can revive them and restore them to life. Only God can remove them from their current state of spiritual death and bring them to life in Him. The psalmist then says what the people will do after they have been revived. They will rejoice in God. This is the whole purpose of their new life, praising God, worshiping God, taking pleasure in God, and loving God. He revives them so that they may live in relationship with Him. This is the psalmist's plea.

He adds another plea in verse 7: “Show us Your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us Your salvation.” This is what Israel needs most. God's love. His mercy. His kindness. His faithfulness. God's salvation. His deliverance of His people to safety. 

In the last section of the psalm, the psalmist expresses his confident hope that God will hear and answer his prayers. The section is filled with future tense verbs. God will “speak peace to His people,” to those who are faithful and who turn to Him with their whole selves (verse 8). Salvation will come. It is “at hand for those who fear Him” so that “His glory may dwell in our land” (verse 9). God will rescue His people. The time is near. His will abide with Israel, settling His glorious presence in the Promised Land, dwelling close to His family. 

When this occurs, when God comes to settle with His people, wonderful things will happen, things that the psalmist depicts in vivid, beautiful language. “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky” (verses 10-11). Everything will be right with the world. Love and truth and righteousness will reign because God, Who is the perfect Source of all these things, Who is Love, Truth, and Righteousness in person, will reign. 

The psalm ends on another confident note: “The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before Him, and will make a path for His steps” (verses 12-13). God will provide everything we need, spiritual and material. He always gives us what is good for us, even if it doesn't seem so good at the time. As Romans 8:28 assures, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.” But we must also make an effort. We must prepare our hearts. We cannot be truly righteous without God, certainly, but we can open ourselves to righteousness. We can learn the moral law and form our consciences rightly. We can behave virtuously with justice, temperance, prudence, and courage, even on a human level. That kind of behavior opens the door to God and lets Him take what is there by nature and raise it up by grace. We must prepare a path for Him in our hearts. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Little Something Extra...Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Praying the Readings

Lord Jesus, I cry for help but You do not listen! Sometimes it seems like You aren't hearing our prayers, Lord. But at those times, we need special faith to remember that You always hear and answer us. Please help us trust in You.

Why do You let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? There is misery everywhere, Lord, so many people suffering. We live in a fallen world. Jesus, please wrap those who are in pain in Your loving arms and hold them tightly.

...if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late. Waiting is very difficult, Lord. Give us patience to wait for You and for the fulfillment of Your perfect plan.

...the just one, because of his faith, shall live. Fill us with faith, Lord Jesus, that we may live in holiness.

Come, let us sing joyfully to the Lord... We praise You, Lord, and we bless You, for You have filled our hearts with joy this holy day as we gather as one family to receive You, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, in the Holy Eucharist. 

Oh, that today you would hear His voice: “Harden not your hearts...” Open our hearts today that we may hear Your voice, Lord. May we always keep our hearts flexible and pure, ready to welcome You.

...stir into flame the gift of God... Set us on fire, Lord, with the flame of Your Holy Spirit, that we may speak Your Word everywhere and live it every day in every situation.

So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord... Let us never be ashamed of being Christians, Lord, even when we are slandered and persecuted. Help us hold fast to the truth. 

Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us. Lord, Your Holy Spirit dwells deep within our souls. May we never lose Him through serious sin. Instead, may we guard the gifts of faith, hope, and love You have given us and strive to be true to You. 

If you have faith the size of a mustard seed... Our faith is so small and so weak. Strengthen our faith, Lord, and let it grow strong that You may work through us always. 

We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do. Lord, give us the humility we need to rely on You for everything and to recognize that our salvation is Your free gift to us. May we always accept it with wide open hearts.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 84

Psalm 84 is a beautiful psalm about living in God's presence, desiring a relationship with Him, and worshiping Him with joy. It teaches us what true happiness is and offers us an opportunity to meditate on Who God is and what He has done for us.

The psalm begins with an exclamation: “How lovely is Your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!” (verse 1). For the Jewish psalmist, the dwelling place of God would have been the Jerusalem Temple, where God's presence was specially available to Israel and where the Israelites gathered to pray and worship. To the psalmist, this dwelling place of God is “lovely,” the Hebrew yedı̂yd, which can also mean well-loved or beloved. The psalmist loves the Temple because God is there. Love for the Temple is another way to express love for God. Notice, too, that God is addressed by the title “Lord of hosts.” This title stresses God's power and transcendence. He is the God of armies of angels, a Heavenly ruler and warrior. Yet He chooses to dwell among us. 

The psalmist continues with an expression of longing: “My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God” (verse 2). The psalmist is caught up in desire for God. He longs to be where God is, worshiping Him, praising Him, singing to Him with all his has, heart and body. The Hebrew for “longs” is kâsaph, and in its Niphal verb-form, as it is in this verse, it expresses a deep longing. The Hebrew for “faints” is kâlâh, another intense verb that can point to wasting away, being spent, and being consumed. The psalmist is consumed with desire. He wants God more than anything, so much that he feels like he's wasting away with his longing. All he wants is to be with God, in God's courts, within the place where He dwells, safe within the enclosed walls of His temple. His whole being calls for this, breaking out in a ringing cry (Hebrew rânan) to the living God. God is not just some abstract, distant Being to the psalmist. He is not far away with no influence on the psalmist's life. He is living. His is real. He is close. He is life itself. 

In verse 3, the psalmist observes a sparrow living in God's presence, making her nest near His altar and laying her young there in complete trust. The psalmist longs for this kind of trusting intimacy, being close to God every day, staying beside Him in His dwelling, placing all his treasures near His altar. “Happy are those who live in You house,” he exclaims, “ever singing Your praise!” (verse 4). There could be no better life than this. True happiness is found in God's presence and in worshiping Him. True happiness is remaining with God, sitting beside Him, praising Him with song. For the psalmist, there is nothing better. 

Happy, too, “are those whose strength is in You, in whose heart are the highways to Zion,” the psalmist continues (verse 5). True happiness means allowing God to take control, relying on His strength rather than one's own weakness. People who are truly happy have well-paved paths in their hearts, roads that lead to God. In the worst of times as well as in the best of times they can travel these highways and find their way straight to God. These ways are so engraved in their hearts that they can find them and run down them whenever they wish, directly into God's arms. 

For these people, even the driest, most desolate times and places are freshened by sweet rain. As the psalmist says, “As they go through the valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools” (verse 6). The word “Baca” here refers to a lonely valley in Palestine, but it also means “weeping.” This dry valley of tears cannot sadden those who trust in God. Their very presence turns the valley of Baca into a fountain (Hebrew ma‛yân), something beautiful and a source of refreshment. The joy in these people's hearts overflows into the desolation and fills it with blessings (the Hebrew word for “pool” is berâkâh, literally blessing, benediction, prosperity). God has filled them with strength and love. It flows out from them wherever they are.

Verse 7 continues, “They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.” The Hebrew word for “strength” is chayil, and it can mean virtue, valor, power, and wealth as well as strength. People who are truly happy just keep growing. They keep getting happier, moving from virtue to virtue, progressing in strength and valor and true wealth. Why? They have hope. They will see God! He is their only goal, and they live for Him. 

Here the psalmist breaks out into a prayer: “O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob!” (verse 8). Listen to my prayer, all-powerful God of Heaven! Hear me, God, You Who have deigned to step into human history and take the people of Israel, the children of Jacob, to Yourself, carrying them through trial after trial and making a covenant with them. 

What does the psalmist want God to do? “Behold our shield, O God, look on the face of Your anointed” (verse 9). The Hebrew word for “behold” is râ'âh. In this verse, it is used in its Niphal verb-form, which is typically passive and means “to appear” or “to present oneself” or “to be visible.” The psalmist, then, is asking God to present Himself to Israel as a shield (Hebrew mâgên, also protector or ruler). He further asks God to look on (Hebrew nâbaṭ - to regard, to consider, to pay attention to) the face of His anointed (Hebrew mâshı̂yach – king of Israel, high priest of Israel, Messiah). This verse can work on more than one level. The psalmist might be simply asking God to protect Israel and bless its king and leaders. He may also be praying for the long-expected Messiah to appear. Or perhaps these words contain a prophecy the psalmist may not have even fully understood. The Holy Spirit, after all, is the Author of Scripture. Could this prayer be a hint about the nature of the Anointed One, the Messiah, Who was to come? In Jesus Christ, the Messiah, God does indeed appear. He is visible, with a human face. He presents Himself to Israel as a ruler and protector but also has a shield to take the blows of sin and death upon Himself. The Spirit knew all of this, of course, even if the psalmist did not. Is it too much to suggest that He used the psalmist's prayer to declare a prophecy of what, or rather Who, was to come?

The psalmist, probably unaware of the deep meaning of his words, continues with a declaration: “For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness” (verse 10). The psalmist's priorities are clear. He knows exactly where he wants to be, and he's willing to be the lowest of the low just to be there.

Why? “For the Lord God is a sun and shield; He bestows favor and honor” (verse 11). God is everything. He shines upon His people, illuminating them with life and love. He protects them and rules over them (the Hebrew word for “shield” is mâgên again – another hint at the Messiah's true identity perhaps?). He grants favor (Hebrew chên, also grace, kindness, and beauty) and honor (Hebrew kâbôd, also abundance, splendor, dignity, and riches). Everything a human being could possibly need or want comes from God, and the psalmist only wants Him. “No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly,” he assures (verse 11). Those who have God, who live in innocence and truth and integrity, have everything else besides.

The psalmist ends with a prayer: “O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in You” (verse 12). True happiness is having confidence in God, trusting in His care and His love and His mercy. True happiness is being in a relationship with Him, relying on Him to provide everything necessary for life and for salvation. True happiness is boldly loving God, answering His call to living faith. True happiness is security in the One Who loves us completely. True happiness is dwelling in the courts of the house of our God.