My husband has celebrated his birthday this week, and it reminded me of some of the many ways we celebrate life. Before a baby is even born, we share special moments of excitement–sonograms, gender reveal parties, baby showers, picking out names, feeling little “kicks” and movements in the womb. We give gifts and blessings when the baby arrives. We take baby photos and commemorate all the “firsts”– first tooth, first steps, first words, etc. And each year, we remember. We send cards and other birthday greetings; we give gifts and have parties with special cakes and songs and party hats. We invite others to celebrate, as well.
Not everyone celebrates birthdays, and some people make a mockery of their advancing age, but most of us think birthdays are a big deal, and worth celebrating. LIFE is a big deal. Life is a sacred gift, and we should cherish every moment of it. We celebrate the events of life– achievements, milestones, graduations, new jobs, promotions, relocations, marriages, anniversaries, retirements, and much more. Celebrating life is an industry– cards, balloons, T-shirts, reception halls, catering, special clothing (wedding dresses, tuxes, caps and gowns, etc.), special foods, party favors, confetti, gift items– we spend a lot of time, energy, money, and even “life” celebrating our lives.
And we also celebrate life at its end. Even as we grieve the loss of loved ones, we seek to memorialize their lives. We hold funerals, publish obituaries and memorials, erect tombstones, build monuments, and write tributes and biographies. We celebrate the achievements, memories, and legacies of those who pass on. Their lives mattered. They don’t cease to matter when death comes. For the Christian, there is a special reason to celebrate the end of life– because it is NOT the end! Imagine the celebration of Life that will never end–the celebration of eternity with the Author, Giver, Redeemer, and Sustainer of Life!
Many people have wished my husband an happy birthday this week, and they’ve offered prayers and good wishes. Today, I will be praying for many people who are celebrating a birthday. I will offer up a thanksgiving for their life, and celebrate the One who created each unique person on today’s list.
We’re going through a journey that has focused on worldwide death– fear of death and disease, despair, anger, desperation, and hopelessness. We shouldn’t ignore the reality of death around us, but we mustn’t let it overwhelm the life that is within us. Life is worth celebrating–ALWAYS!
It was almost 160 years ago, during the darkest days of America’s Civil War, that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem “Christmas Bells” that would become the Christmas Hymn, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” His son had been badly wounded in battle; his wife had died just a few years earlier, and the nation was in ruins and chaos. No one knew how much longer the war would continue or what the final outcome would be; Longfellow did not know if his son would live, or if he would be paralyzed for life. As he listened to the bells of Christmas ringing from church towers, he poured out all his doubts and fears in verse. Yet he concluded, “The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.”
Christmas is not just a celebration of “comfort and joy” that comes from tinsel and lights, cozy fires, or gifts under brightly lit trees. Christmas is about Hope in times of darkness. It is about promises kept; prophesies fulfilled, victory assured, even when it looks as though the Enemy has the upper hand.
It is horribly tempting in troubled times to wonder and question God’s ways– does He hear? Does He see? Is He asleep? Does He exist? How can a “good” God allow such suffering and pain? And like Longfellow, we listen to our circumstances, and they seem to drown out the message of Christmas– “For Hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men.” The cannons of yesteryear may have been replaced with 24-hour news cycles or Facebook news feeds, with protests and lock-downs, COVID counts and contested elections, but the noise is still the same. There is hatred, deceit, destruction, and doubt in our world–it was present during the Civil War; it was present during the Roman occupation at the time of Christ’s birth. But that birth brought a singular hope– one that has become so familiar, and so casual as to be almost forgotten amidst the immediate urgent noises of the day.
The trappings of Christmas sometimes hide the very Glory of Christ’s Advent. God CAME. He LIVED AMONG US. He was humble. He felt the cold and heat of long days and nights; his feet got dirty from walking. He laughed and cried. And, He DIED. He felt agony and shame and fear as he gasped for breath, naked and bloody and facing sneers and anger from the crowd. But God IS NOT DEAD–He conquered death; He rose again victorious. And He did it so that our suffering is not in vain– our suffering is not the end of our story.
GOD IS NOT DEAD. Hope is not in vain. Nor does He sleep–even in the silence of our lonely nights, even in the noisy chaos of life in 2020–God has not stepped off His throne; He has not turned His back on mankind. “The Wrong shall fail–” though it may seem strong and strut arrogantly through the streets, shouting and threatening–God is the final authority. Nothing is hidden from Him. He sees every injustice, every secret sin; He hears every lie, every twisted truth, every deceit. And He has no favorites– there is no excuse, no “religious” exemption– ALL have sinned, and all will be held to account.
EXCEPT– because of that one birth and death and resurrection–the debt is already paid. “The Right (shall) prevail with peace on earth, good-will to men.” For those who listen beyond the noise of battle, the bells of Christmas ring “more loud and deep” with the hope and joy and strength that overcome our pain and struggle. Longfellow found that truth– and I’m so glad he shared it. I hope his words will continue to remind us to listen through this season for the true message of Christmas.
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea-billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my Soul. (It Is Well with My Soul–Horatio Spafford)
…He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my Soul–Psalm 23:2b-3a)
Our Shepherd leads us where we need to go. He gives us everything we need. But He doesn’t give us only ease and pleasure and rest. Such a life leads to complacency, apathy, and spiritual atrophy. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters– He restores my soul. Even though these thoughts come in two separate verses, I think there is a close link between the phrases. We need rest; we need restoration. And we find it when we are drinking deeply from the “still waters”– cool and clear and life-giving waters–the “living water” that only Jesus provides. We are often attracted to swift water– white water rafting, ocean surfing, waterfalls, sailing, etc. Moving water is exciting and full of energy. But it can be overwhelming to fight against the current or the power of falling, churning, running, or raging water. Without being anchored to something stronger than the waves; without help to overcome the pull of the current or a way to get to shore safely– we would be lost.
Storms and tides will be a part of our life– there will be dangers, and toils, loss, and unexpected heartaches. Sometimes, they come from our own foolish choices; often, they come because we live in a broken and fallen world filled with diseases and disasters beyond our control. God doesn’t lead us into storms just to leave us there, flailing and treading water with no end in sight. His goal is to lead us to the still waters and to restore our souls. The same river that contains white water will reach a peaceful valley, where it will run deep and wide and slow– perfect for restoring our souls and reviving our hearts.
It is a comforting thought that God, our Shepherd, will lead us beside still waters. But that is not always our lot. God’s promise is not that we will always have quiet, calm waters in life. God’s promise is that He will lead us safely through even the raging storm– and that His presence will provide a peace that defies our temporary surroundings and our trying circumstances.
Several years ago, there was a popular song lamenting that, “all we are is dust in the wind.” The song evokes a feeling of helplessness– we are weak, small, and helpless as dust in the wind. It speaks of impermanence, brevity, sadness, and hopelessness in the face of forces greater than ourselves, and offers a warning not to “hang on” to earthly vanities.
The Bible speaks to this –God told Adam in the Garden of Eden that he would die and return to the dust from which he was formed (Genesis 2:7 and 3:19). Abraham was told that his seed would be “like the dust of the earth;” spread out across the earth and unable to be counted. The book of Job is filled with images of dust and ashes, as Job, homeless and afflicted, sits covered in them, talking of his life and death, and the emptiness of loss.
But there are surprisingly few references to dust in the New Testament. Jesus tells his disciples to visit cities, and where the people will not listen, the disciples are to leave and “shake the dust from (their) feet” as a testimony against them (Matthew 10:14; Mark 6:11; Luke 9:5)
There are two aspects of dust I want to look at today. First, as the song suggests, dust is carried along by the wind. It has no permanence, no weight, no importance, no resistance, and is swept away by a chance wind, or by design with a broom or dust cloth. Dust is not cherished, but discarded. But dust is not destroyed by the wind– it is carried, lifted, moved, and dispersed, but not destroyed. The dust of today will be somewhere else many generations from now, and the dust that settles on our floors, tables, and under the bed may have been blown there from thousands of miles and centuries away! In just such a way, our lives– fragile and brief, leave traces of words spoken, kindnesses shared, and sacrifices made, that live long after our bodies return to ashes and dust. There is an amazing glory in a mote of dust carried by the stillness into a beam of sunlight. It sparkles and dances and drifts in a graceful spiral, suspended in light and air. And there is glory in a life lived in the light, seeking stillness and grace, being carried by the slightest whisper of God’s eternal love.
Secondly, dust that is not in motion, not in the light, IS discarded, unwanted, corrosive, and dead. There is no glory in layers of accumulated dust covering the beauty of an antique dresser or building up in the corner of a room. Dust that is NOT carried on the wind sits, worthless and destructive. It gets absorbed into an unsightly pile of sad, dead matter, and it sits– going nowhere, doing nothing. We shake it off, brush it off, wash it off, sweep it away, and get rid of it.
Dust comes from death– dead skin cells, dead plant and animal matter–and I think there is a very real reason it is mentioned so often in connection with sin, sickness, unbelief, judgment, and death (though not in all cases). God does not want to leave us unmoved and dead– He wants to bring us to glory and give us new life in Him. We are dust in the wind– but that is not all we are. Instead, it is what we are for a brief moment in time– being carried to a new destination, or sinking and settling into despair.
I pray that we will be lifted up in prayer and faith today, to dance in the light of God’s glorious grace, and carry our mote of glory and grace to wherever God my send us.
One of my favorite movies is “The Princess Bride.” The title character begins the story as a young, beautiful, wealthy, and spoiled young woman. She falls in love with the young farm boy who works for her father. The young man leaves to make his fortune, but word comes that he has been captured and killed by pirates. In utter despair, the young woman allows herself to become engaged to a spoiled and wicked prince. She has allowed her grief to consume her, and she cares nothing for the prince, his wealth or power, or even her own future. Before she can be married to the prince, she is kidnapped by villains, and “rescued” by a mysterious pirate. Instead of being grateful, she curses the pirate, telling him that he could never understand her great loss and pain. His answer, harsh, glib, but to the point, is to say that “life is pain, Princess. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”
There are certain truths in life that we would avoid if we could– death, pain, sorrow, grief, suffering, and Sin–we don’t want to hear the harsh reality of our situation. We don’t want to suffer or hurt at all; much less to discover that our suffering is commonplace or universal. Everyone will taste death; everyone will face pain and grief and suffering in this life. Everyone will suffer as a result of Sin– our individual actions have consequences, as do the cumulative actions of our culture, our ancestors, and the entire human race. This is a harsh truth, but it IS the truth.
There are four common techniques we tend to use to avoid facing harsh truths– denial or avoidance, anger, bargaining, and depression or despair. Many people know these terms from the Kubler-Ross studies on patients with terminal illnesses and the five “stages” she identified as they came to terms with their impending death. https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/ The fifth “stage” was acceptance. The five stages have been applied commonly to other forms of grieving and loss, including the loss of a loved one or the break-up of a marriage. While most of us go through some or all of these stages when we face suffering, we don’t all go through them the same way or even in the same order.
Many of us live in avoidance and denial– rushing headlong into meaningless pleasure, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, staying busy with the pursuit of wealth or power. Others wrap themselves in anger– blaming everyone else for their pain, seeking revenge, driving away those who want to help. Still others try to bargain– seeking to avoid death by trying every new diet or fitness routine, or trying to be righteous enough to earn a supernatural blessing or “good karma.” And many wallow in depression and despair, lost in the swamp and mist, sinking into a pit of their own feelings.
These reactions are normal and human. Harsh truths hurt– they shock us, overwhelm us, shatter our trust, even shake our faith. But they ARE true. What is also true is that God has not left us without resources, even for the harshest realities we face. Even when we are in despair, or angry, or in denial, God can give us peace and strength to go on.
God isn’t “selling something” to make the pain go away or make our life “trouble-proof.” Jesus never offered a comfortable life to His followers. In fact, He promised that our lives would be filled with trouble and pain and sorrow! Christians who claim that they never face fear, or failure, fury or frustration, loss and sorrow– they are “selling” a false gospel. Jesus faced and conquered death on a cross! He could have avoided it– He could have been angry at those who betrayed Him–He could have stayed buried in despair and failure. But He arose! We don’t worship someone who has never wept, or faced betrayal or loss. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6)– if anyone knows the harsh truth, it is the one who IS Truth! And this Truth hurts– He hurts to see us grieving; He hurts when we reject Him to go our own way; He hurts even as He allows us to hurt.
Faith, prayer, worship, promises– these are not God’s way of helping us escape the reality of harsh truths. They are His tools for helping us to overcome and be victorious in the face of trials and setbacks, grief and pain, even death! As Princess Buttercup discovers in “The Princess Bride”– “Death cannot stop true love!” And it cannot stop the Truth that IS Love!
Hannah is a Bible heroine. Her story is an inspiration to many women who suffer, whether from infertility, depression, or being misunderstood. Hannah is a popular girl’s name. Peninnah, on the other hand, is a name you rarely hear today. No one wants to name their child after a bully, and a rival to a Biblical matriarch.
As we read through the story in 1 Samuel, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+1&version=NIV it seems hard enough that Hannah is barren. Especially as it is revealed that God is responsible for her condition. It seems unfair and harsh. But her trouble doesn’t end there. She has a rival–Elkanah’s other wife– who provokes, irritates, and taunts her, making her cry and keeping her in a state of anguish and stress. Peninnah has many children. She has reason to be joyful and proud. Yet she spends her time harassing and hurting Hannah, a woman who is already “beneath” her in society.
Rivalries tend to bring out the worst in us. Catfights, gossip, taunting, undermining others–books, movies, and even TV series have been built on such pettiness. Whether rivals at school, rivals in romantic relationships, rivals in business, or rivals in our own inflated egos, we allow our world to be narrowed to focus on two people who don’t even exist! We magnify our rival’s faults, twist her motives, and hold grudges over what she “probably” meant when she said “that.” And we justify our overreactions, our grievances, and our tendency to see ourselves as innocent victims.
In the case of Hannah and Peninnah, their world was already small. They were sharing a husband and a household, and likely somewhat isolated from the kind of society with which we are familiar. We live in societies where polygamy is illegal and wives do not (generally) live together. Our families tend to live in single units of husband, wife, and children. However, we also live in a society where fidelity is becoming more rare. Marriages break down, couple break up, and “sharing” a husband, if not a household, is more common than we might admit. Even in divorce and remarriage, we may find a rival in our husband’s ex-wife, or our ex-husband’s new partner, or our partner’s ex-mother-in-law (or our current mother-in-law) or among our step-children.
Elkanah is not an innocent bystander in all this. We don’t know why he has two wives, and the Bible doesn’t say that Elkanah did NOT love Peninnah, but it makes a point of saying that Elkanah DID love Hannah (suggesting that he might have been indifferent to his other wife). Also, the Bible is silent about whether or not Elkanah was aware of the rivalry going on under his roof. He seems totally oblivious and largely absent. Even though he loves Hannah, he doesn’t take care to protect her from Peninnah’s spite. Once again, we find parallels in our own situations– husbands who feel overwhelmed or blind-sided by the rivalries going on around them; husbands who ignore the firestorms; even men who revel in being the focus of so much attention.
But, before we label Peninnah the great villain of this story (or turn our anger on Elkanah for letting their rivalry continue), let’s be careful not to rush to judgment. The Bible doesn’t call Peninnah a villain, merely a rival. It says that she provoked Hannah, and taunted her, and even made her cry. However, the story is focused on Hannah. Her reaction to this taunting was to do what so many of us do– to let it heap up on her and push her down into anguish. Hannah doesn’t fight back. But neither does she stand up to her rival. If Peninnah is trying to make Hannah feel worthless and depressed, she succeeds because Hannah allows herself to believe it.
I think there are several key lessons here, and I think God tells us the whole story because there He wants us to see these lessons.
Rivalries and conflicts WILL arise in our lives. We shouldn’t pretend otherwise or refuse to deal with them. If you have a rival in your life at this moment, stop and think of ways you can seek peace. Pray, reach out, seek help. This is especially important where children are involved. If you have a rivalry with in-laws, ex-spouses, your children’s step-parents, it WILL impact all your relationships. It will be the way your children learn to relate to others. Whether you are the “bully” or the “middle man” or the “doormat”, you have a responsibility to make an effort to restore harmony. You cannot change the other person, but you can (with God’s help) change the way you build your legacy. And God can change everyone involved.
While Hannah did well not to react to Peninnah with her own spite and malice, she let her rival “win” by saying and doing nothing. Jesus teaches us that we are not to ignore those who hate or despise us, but to love them and pray for them. Hannah could have offered to reach out to Peninnah and her children, but she remained isolated. Maybe that was because of Peninnah’s actions or bitterness, but the Bible doesn’t say that Hannah made any effort to end this rivalry, either. She didn’t seek help from her loving husband, and she didn’t seek help from her loving God until she was at the end of her rope.
Spite, malice, bitterness, or even self-righteousness (or whatever else may have prompted Peninnah’s nastiness) not only hurts others, it hurts us and blinds us to the opportunity to do good. Peninnah had many children and lived in the same household with Hannah. Instead of taunting her and causing her grief, she could have opened up her heart to allow for a happy, unified family. Peninnah’s hurtful actions are her legacy to every generation that reads this story. She may have been a wonderful mom, a talented women, a real beauty– but she will always be known as the rival who made Hannah miserable. Our actions, even in our own household, have eternal consequences. Small acts of pettiness and spite can follow us for the rest of our lives, destroying our reputations, and blotting out all our “good works”.
Our abilities, skills, talents, status, or fertility DO NOT define our worth. God closed Hannah’s womb– he never closed His heart toward her. He gave her a husband who loved her and provided for her. He kept his eyes on her until the time was right to bless her in a supernatural way. God had opened Peninnah’s womb, but she kept her heart closed, and bragged about her children as though she alone were responsible for them. God had provided Peninnah with a husband who provided for her and created a family with her. She had children and a secure home, and reason to sacrifice to God with thanksgiving, yet her focus, even during her visit to the tabernacle, stayed on destroying her rival.
What makes Hannah a heroine in this story is NOT the way she bears up under bullying. Even though she didn’t get sucked into anger and malice, she fell victim to despair and depression. Hannah’s victory comes ONLY after she turns everything over to God in prayer. Peninnah’s pettiness is crushed by God’s miraculous provision.
May this be true in our lives, too– That we would turn to God, and replace bitterness, pettiness, pain and rivalry with His joy, fulfillment, and grace.
1 There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. 2 He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.
3Year after year this man went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord Almighty at Shiloh, where Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the Lord. 4 Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. 5 But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb. 6 Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. 7 This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. 8 Her husband Elkanah would say to her, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”
We don’t normally spend much time studying Samuel’s father, Elkanah. Yet the story of Hannah and Samuel begins with this man. Not only that, but it begins with a lesson in his genealogy and heritage. We learn that Elkanah was from Ramathaim (a town in the hill country of the tribal lands of Ephraim). As a Zuphite, however, Elkanah (and thus his son, Samuel) were also descended from the Kohathites, and were of the Levitical priestly line.
Hannah was one of two wives of Elkanah. We don’t know why Elkanah had two wives, but we know that the other wife, Peninnah, had children; likely several (see verse 4). Hannah, however, was barren– and this was “because the Lord had closed her womb.” There is nothing to indicate that this a result of any sin on the part of Hannah or Elkanah–there is no reason given for God’s decision to keep Hannah from becoming a mother. There is also no reason to believe that Elkanah was angry or disappointed or embarrassed by Hannah’s condition. In the society of that time, a man could divorce his wife for minor offenses; in this society, barrenness would be seen as a major defect, a stigma, and grounds for divorce. Hannah faced the possibility of rejection, abandonment, and condemnation from her husband. Yet Elkanah loved Hannah, and honored her with a double portion for their yearly offering.
Even with a loving and supportive husband, however, Hannah is inconsolable. And it is here that I think many of do a disservice to Elkanah. The Bible tells us that Peninnah taunted Hannah and drove her to tears. When she would not eat, Elkanah asked some basic questions. Why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? and the one that always makes me cringe– Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?
These questions always bothered me. It seems to me that Elkanah is either clueless or in denial about the bitter rivalry going on under his very roof. And his questions seem to underline his ignorance.
A closer look at the context, however shows that Elkanah may be more a victim of our modern cultural understanding than a victim of his own deficiencies as a husband. It says on the day that Elkanah was to sacrifice– an indication that he was inside the tabernacle and on duty –that Peninnah was taunting Hannah. If Elkanah was ignorant of the torment Hannah faced, it may very well be that it was being kept from him by Hannah herself. As a woman, I’m also guilty of expecting that my husband will “pick up” on non-verbal clues, or otherwise intuitively “understand” why I am depressed, or tired, or angry. Husbands, as loving and attentive as they may be, are not mind readers, and I have been guilty of making mine play a frustrating guessing game as he seeks to offer help. Men are also more likely to start by asking questions to “get to the root” of the problem, when we are seeking comfort and understanding, before we seek a solution. Elkanah and Hannah are no different in this respect than most of us today. Hannah is not a superwoman–she cries at the party and won’t eat. Elkanah is not a superman–he can’t “fix” Hannah’s sadness, nor can he feel the total depth of her despair. Finally, Elkanah asks a question that gives us a window into his own secret anguish. “Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” I want to rest here for a minute. I think we tend to get caught up in the words, and miss the heart of this plea. What is he really expressing? I don’t think Elkanah is trying to exaggerate his worth, nor is he trying to minimize Hannah’s desperation. But there is a heartfelt cry to be “enough.” So many times, when we face infertility, miscarriage, or the loss of a child, we focus on the mother’s feelings of loss and emptiness. In this story, we look at Hannah as being an outsider in her own family– the wife who “can’t”–the one who is in distress. Elkanah’s question may even seem insensitive and arrogant. Listen to it again, though, and you can hear the broken heart of a man who loves his wife, even as she is pulling away and allowing her grief to consume her. “Don’t I mean more to you?” “Am I not enough to keep you from despair?” Yes, Elkanah has children with Peninnah, but he longs for happiness and fulfillment in his relationship with Hannah. The Bible never says how many children Peninnah had, but it seems clear that in Elkanah’s eyes, Hannah was worth far more than “ten sons.”
I am broken as I think of times when I have been so consumed in my own grief and “neediness” that I have pushed away those who love me most, shutting them out, and making them question their own worth.
How many times have I done the same to the Lover of My Soul?
How many times do I focus on the one thing I don’t have, or the two annoying people in my life, and ignore the blessings God has poured out? When was the last time I made an extra effort to communicate to my husband how much he DOES mean to me, instead of leaving him to wonder? How many tears have I poured out with my face turned away from my Loving Father?
Hannah’s husband asks some leading questions– they lead Hannah to collapse before the only one who can bring healing and joy. Hannah’s prayer comes from a point of being broken– far more than needing a child, Hannah needs the love and understanding her husband longs to give her, and the joy and blessing her Heavenly Father has been waiting to offer.
We know the end of this story– God opens Hannah’s womb, giving her and her husband a son who will go on to play a key role in Israel’s history and God’s story of redemption. He continues to bless Hannah and Elkanah with other children, and, hopefully, a renewed relationship of joy and commitment.
May our prayer journey today lead us toward the Love of our Good Father– whether from a place of brokenness, need, confusion, joy, frustration, or victory.
I’ve been reading in the Psalms lately, and one that has really spoken to me this week has been Psalm 3
Psalm 3English Standard Version (ESV)
Save Me, O My God
A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.
3 O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; 2 many are saying of my soul, “There is no salvation for him in God.” Selah[a]
3 But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. 4 I cried aloud to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah
5 I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me. 6 I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.
7 Arise, O Lord! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked.
8 Salvation belongs to the Lord; your blessing be on your people! Selah
Psalm 3:2The meaning of the Hebrew word Selah, used frequently in the Psalms, is uncertain. It may be a musical or liturgical direction
Everyone has foes– no matter how hard we try to get along with everyone or do right by everyone. And if those foes are people who should be or used to be close to you, it hurts deeper and more profoundly. King David’s own son tried to take the throne and have him murdered. David, who had slain Goliath, feigned madness to escape from his own father-in-law’s murderous plots, and united a kingdom, still fled in terror from his arrogant and foolish son. Even when God rescued him from this foe, David wept and mourned for his rebellious son– to the point of discouraging the very men who had come to his aid!
But, as David did so well and so often, in the midst of his trouble, he turned first to the Lord who ruled his heart. I love the names he gives God in this Psalm—You (Thou), O Lord are a Shield about me, My Glory, and the Lifter of My Head (v. 3– emphasis mine).
David’s God is powerful, majestic, awesome– but He is not distant or unfeeling. Thou (used in the King James and other older English translations) is a term unfamiliar to many modern speakers of English, but it is the familiar form of the second person singular. Many other languages still use this form. It connotes an intimate relationship, such as a family member or beloved friend. David knew his God better than he knew his own son. He loved God whole-heartedly, devotedly, and without reservation.
Lord recognizes God’s position of authority and omnipotence. As close as David was to God, he never lost the awe and wonder of God’s holiness, His majesty, His power, and His wisdom. God raised David from shepherd boy to king. David wasn’t perfect in his obedience, but he was quick repent of his failures, and quick to give God the credit for his successes.
A Shield— God fights alongside David, protecting him, not patronizing him or removing him from the struggle. God doesn’t remove us from our battles; but neither does He leave us alone and unprotected, waiting on the sidelines for us to be slaughtered.* Yesterday, I felt clobbered by circumstances. I felt crushed and battered emotionally, and I wanted a couch, far from the noise of battle. But God knows that no one wins a battle from the couch; no one grows stronger, learns to persevere, builds character, or gains compassion from a couch. God didn’t take me out of the battle, but He was (and continues to be) a shield, protecting me from the real arrows of the enemy– despair, rage, isolation, arrogance, self-destruction–I still feel the force of the blows, and sometimes, I get wounded, but I’m still in the fight, and He’s there with me. *(One caveat– God is a shield to those who trust in Him. He does not promise that we won’t be hurt, won’t fail sometimes, or won’t face death because of our faith. However, He promises a comforter and counselor–the Holy Spirit. There are many who lead so-called “charmed” lives– lives untouched by trials or spiritual battles…Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is the same thing as being “shielded”– shields are meant for battle– charms are meant to bring luck)
My Glory— I get chills trying to wrap myself around that thought. That God, the almighty, the all-glorious light of a million galaxies worth of stars, would notice me– let alone that He would number the hairs on my head, provide for my needs, heed my call for help, and fight alongside me–would create me in His image, so that I am an exact reflection of even the teeniest part of His Glory…that He invites me to know Him in all His Glory after all my failures, and broken promises, and shortcomings, and bad moods, and thoughtless words and actions, my bad hair days and dandruff days and runny nose days, and other inglorious ugliness that I cannot hide… But the best of all, I think is the last…
The Lifter of My Head–What a picture of God’s compassion! Think of picking up a newborn baby; how carefully we lift up and support that tiny head– how longingly we cup and shield that fragile face. That’s our God! Imagine on the battlefield, a soldier, wounded, parched, having his head lifted gently by a comrade who comes to tend to his wounds and share a drink of water. Or the prodigal son, who cannot meet his father’s eyes, but finds his chin gently tilted to meet undeserved but merciful smile of his loving Dad. God lifts our head so that we can see beyond the battle; beyond the pain; beyond the grief, and gaze at the Glory only He can share.
If you don’t know this God–He is only a prayer away. If you feel distant from God– call out and ask Him to lift up your head. If you are struggling (as I have been lately), let this be a reminder to seek God by all His glorious names— He will reveal Himself to you for who He is as you call out to Him.
One of my favorite movies is “It’s a Wonderful Life.” No matter how many times I watch it, it never gets old for me.
Oh, I know it’s in black and white, and it’s out-of-date. It’s politically incorrect on numerous levels, and it’s theologically incorrect, as well. But for all that, I think it has a deep wisdom we are sorely lacking, and I think what it says about the power of prayer cannot be dismissed.
Much of the movie is spent tracing the less-than-wonderful things that happen to George Bailey. George Bailey is the quintessential “nice-guy” who always seems to miss out–as a boy, he leaps into an icy river to save his brother’s life. His brother is saved, but George ends up losing the hearing in one ear. While his friends go off to college, George has to stay behind; when he finally saves enough money to enroll, he ends up having to give up his college plans to save the family business after the sudden death of his father. He loses out on business opportunities, and keeps losing skirmishes with his nemesis, the “scurvy spider” local magnate, Mr. Potter. Finally, on Christmas Eve, George has had enough. The weight of always doing “the right thing,” and watching others get ahead while he falls further behind, has taken its toll. When his absent-minded uncle loses $8000, George faces scandal and prison after all his years of frustrating hard work in a job he hates. After uncharacteristic angry outbursts and a short drinking binge, George is in utter meltdown. In desperation, he prays. It’s not an eloquent prayer, or an angry outburst. It’s a wimpy, doubtful, squeak of a prayer, “Dear Father in Heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way…show me the way.”
What the viewer knows, but George doesn’t, is that dozens of people he knows have all been praying for him. We get to hear the voices of his wife, his children, his friends and neighbors, all praying simple and heartfelt prayers. And we also know that God is at work– preparing to send an angel to help George. But in the bar, at the end of George’s tearful and tremulous prayer, God is silent.
Not only is God silent, but George’s downward spiral continues after his prayer. He gets punched in the jaw by a man he was arguing with earlier in the evening, and he doesn’t even have enough money to pay his bar tab. Driving away, drunk, he runs into a tree and gets yelled at. Reeling down the road and onto the bridge, where he intends to jump to his death, he almost gets hit by a truck.
While I like the sappy, happy ending of the movie, the incredible darkness and despair leading up to George’s encounter with Clarence, and the even darker “alternate universe” that George experiences are what keep me coming back to this movie– not because I’m a glutton for emotional wringers, but because George’s story is only wonderful when he gets to see it from God’s point of view. Mr. Potter tells George that he is worth more dead than alive. But Clarence shows George the true worth of his life, not as it might have been, but as it might NOT have been.
And so it is with our lives–all the “might have been”s and broken dreams and failures that weigh us down– God is NOT (as we so often picture Him) shaking His head and grumbling about our wasted potential and weakness. And often, the people we most fear to disappoint, our family and friends, are rooting for us to stay the course– to finish the race. God wants to wipe away all the seeming failures; all the “what-if”s and the “what might have been”s and replace them with the bigger picture of “what is happening around you”, “what really IS”, and “what can be.”
There was never anything wrong with George’s dreams of traveling the world and becoming a successful builder of skyscrapers “a hundred stories tall.” George’s desire to have nice things for himself and his family was not evil, and, in fact, his ambition to do great things was not that different than Mr. Potter’s. But George’s choices, while “right” were not in his own immediate best interest. What Clarence showed George was not “what might have been” had George made other choices in his life. What he showed George was indeed far more wonderful– the ultimate IMPACT of George’s choices! God didn’t “take away” George’s dreams or ruin his life. But neither did He prevent him from making selfish choices or getting what he wanted in the moment. George’s life wasn’t wonderful because of what happened to him– though the ending is miraculous, and George gets toasted by his hero brother as “the richest man in town.” But what really made George’s life wonderful was that he was THERE– there to save his brother; there to fall in love with Mary; there to help and influence so many people; there to tuck his daughter into bed and “paste” the petals of her flower; even there to stand up to Mr. Potter when no one else did.*
God answered George’s prayer. And He answered the prayers of his friends and family. But He didn’t answer in the way we would expect. In fact, George jokes with Clarence that the answer to his prayer was getting slugged in the jaw. But God’s answer came in the form of a childlike “angel” who struggles and questions his ability to make a difference– much like George himself. God didn’t answer the superficial aspect of George’s prayer– He didn’t show him the way to get $8,000. He didn’t show him the way to defeat Mr. Potter, or suddenly become more successful. But He did show George the way to look for “what is” and “what can be”, instead of the “what might have been.”
For anyone who has lost a friend or family member to suicide–my prayer is that we too, would find comfort and hope in the lives our loved ones lived, and not in the manner of their death. God is gracious and loving above all that we can imagine. Part of the hope and message of this movie for me is that, even if George had jumped at the end, his life was still wonderful in God’s eyes, just as it was to all who knew and loved him..
We experienced some storms last week, and while we didn’t have a lot of damage from the winds and rain, my husband and I lost our internet connection over the weekend. No wireless internet meant no Facebook, no WordPress, no e-mail, and no cash register at our little shop downstairs. We had to do every transaction by hand until we could rig up something so our smart phone could accept cards; no new chip cards, no Apple Pay or PayPal. And while our phone could begin to accept limited credit payments, it could not provide any printed receipts, nor could it do double duty– we either had a phone or a point-of-sale device, but not both!
It was an inconvenience, but not a disaster. I thought about thousands of people who are stuck in the aftermath of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, and blizzards who have no electricity, no phone lines, no cell service, no roads, no water or sewer lines–cut off from common necessities and basic communication. Suddenly, an emergency becomes even more tragic because of the isolation, and the inability to ask for help or to hear any message of hope. (Of course, my husband would like me to put in a short plug here about the advantages of amateur radio– the radios can run on battery power and still connect over hundreds of miles!)
Isolation is an earthly concept. God is eternally Triune. He created us for relationship; from the very beginning, he declared that it is not good for “man” to be alone (Genesis 2:18) God instituted marriage, and families, and communities so that we would stay connected, and he himself came to walk and talk with mankind in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. It is mankind who hid from God and broke off communication– one of the effects of Sin is the desire to run away, to separate, to isolate and cut off relationships and break off contact.
That is one reason that prayer is so basic; so essential. It is a lifeline to the one who loves us best, who knows what we need, and has the power to hear us, to help us, to lift us up wherever we may be, whatever our circumstances.
But sometimes, even when we want to talk to God, it seems impossible to speak or feel like he hears us. Sometimes, we are the ones who can’t come up with words, or can’t settle our minds to seek his face. Sometimes, we pour out our hearts and wait in silence for an answer. Why should it be that just when we need it most, prayer seems the hardest?
I wish I had a pithy, perfect answer. I don’t know. I have a few incomplete thoughts, though:
what comes easily has less value to us. Cheap and pointless conversation doesn’t make us work hard, but it also leaves us empty and unsatisfied. Crying out to God is hard–it humbles us, it strips us bare and uncovers all our pretenses and subterfuge. The true depth of our need is ripped out of us like a tumor, and it hurts, but it is a healing hurt. Waiting in silence can cause us to become restless and to doubt, but it also can cause us to listen more attentively– we strain to hear the answer; we stop the white noise of busyness and half-hearted hand-wringing, and listen with our whole being. And the smallest whisper– that still, small voice– has the power of the first rain after a long drought. We are revitalized and our strength renewed as never before.
sometimes, though not always, we find prayer difficult because we have not really prayed for a long time (if ever)– we have developed a habit of saying words to the empty air and thinking that the words themselves hold some power of hope or magic or self-fulfilling prophecy. When life’s realities cannot be wished away with simple words, we search for distractions, for other types of words, for other “realities”, when we should be searching for our maker and the lover of our souls.
sometimes, it is a matter of unacknowledged or unconfessed sin that keeps us from breaking through in prayer. However, there are many people who will use this as a default position, and that, too, is wrong. Jesus had such difficulty in praying at Gethsemane that he sweat drops of blood— NOT because of unconfessed sin, but because his heart was that overwhelmed. Still, we should examine ourselves to see if we have started to move away from God– better to turn back than to go father afield.
sometimes, as with Christ in the Garden, our hearts are just overwhelmed in the moment– it’s hard to breathe! It’s hard to go on; it’s hard to ask for help; it’s hard to keep the faith. Just because it’s difficult, don’t give up– even if all you can do is groan or whimper–even if it feels like God has closed up the heavens and left you alone–don’t give up. God DOES hear, he DOES care. Sometimes, we are inches from victory– don’t give up!
And what can we do during those times? Again, I wish I had better answers, but what I have, I want to share– some from my own experience, some wisdom from others, some of both:
Learn to “pray outside the box”–
Sing–sing the blues, sing an old hymn, sing along with the radio, sing like nobody else is listening
Write it out– write a letter, write an angry letter if you have to– write a rant, write a poem, write out all your questions
Move– dance, pace, run, punch a pillow, do some sit-ups, mop the floor, scrub the sink– as you get a rhythm going, add your thoughts or questions to your movements
Cry it out– it’s ok to cry, moan, sob, weep, or just stare into space and rock yourself to sleep after all the tears have dried up. Jesus wept (John 11:35)– what makes us think that we can’t?
Count your blessings
Make a list of what you have; what you have to be grateful for; what you have experienced and enjoyed now or in the past
Make a list of your questions, concerns, needs, wants, wishes–Now think back ten years and make a list of what you wanted then, and how many of those concerns have been answered, altered, or forgotten.
Put yourself in another time or place– what do you have here and now that others lack? How do your present troubles compare to what others have had to deal with?
Ramp up your pursuit of God in other areas–
Search for answers in His word
Seek the companionship of someone you trust who will help you keep on going
Seek out counselors, web sites, and/or a church group or family who can keep you from becoming isolated
The single most important thing is to continue the pursuit– seek God with all your heart–and you will find him sufficient through the silent times, as well as through the roaring of the fiercest storms.