Finding Peace with God: praying Psalm 131

baby

My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord
both now and forevermore.
(Psalm 131)

One of the shortest psalms in the Bible is also one of the most profound in its picture of prayer. The first verse of the psalm is a declaration of release from things which usually grip our lives. First, the psalmist guides us into a release from pride and haughtiness. I know we all hate to admit it, but there are places of great pride in our lives. We become self-centered either by lifting ourselves up over others or by thinking so lowly of ourselves in false humility, a sort of wicked reversal of pride. As you read Psalm 131, what a gift it is to let go of all the ways we hold ourselves over others, whether specific people who come to our minds or entire categories of humanity.

Next the psalmist chooses to let go of “great matters” that are “too wonderful for me.” It is not wrong to think great thoughts or pursue great things. It is helpful to have a vision for our lives and aim for something. But there is also a time to release them. The psalmist reminds us that when we enter into the presence of God through prayer, we let go of exalted thoughts about ourselves or other things, and we turn our thoughts to our great God.

Yet here is one more interesting thing that Psalm 131 leads us into. So many encounters with God throughout Scripture reflect a reverent awe that verges on fear. But while this psalm leads us to the presence of our exalted God, we find God to be One whose presence brings us to utter stillness and peace as we tenderly yield to Him. The image of a weaned child with its mother in verse two is one of absolute care, total dependence, and satisfied peace. Unlike the soul raging with discontent and pride, the soul humbly at prayer with God comes to a pace of shalom in God. As the psalmist leads us into prayer, as we release great thoughts about ourselves and other things, as we turn our minds to God, now we enter a place of rest with God. First, we let things go and now we grab ahold of God. We hold on and are held. We can relax our striving as we “be still and know” He is God. even now as you read this, let me encourage you to reread the first two verses of the psalm and pray your way into contented rest in God.

The final verse reminds us this is not a personal journey alone but a community journey. Psalm 131 is part of that marvelous collection known as the Psalms of Ascent. These psalms were  used as a prayer journey that mirrored the geographical journey of the Hebrew people from their homes to the Jerusalem Temple for great festivals. They crossed great territory and sometimes rough terrain to come together and worship before God. These psalms helped them also go on a spiritual journey of soul preparation not in isolation but in community. In long journeys over rough terrain it is important that we are not alone. We need one another.

Here in Psalm 131 the preparation of the soul becomes a journey of release from pride, a journey of attaching to God, and a community journey of hope that becomes vital to the earthly pilgrimage of God’s people. There are so many “hopes” we might have in life, but the psalm leads us through them into the active hope in God that pervades all of our days. What are your hopes today? What are your fears? How might you lay them down at the feet of God, even as we find hope in Him by resting in Him now and forever. Consider reading the psalm one more time and then take some time in stillness and prayer before our great and tenderly loving God.

Why Does God Seem Distant?: The Holy Pursuit of the Hidden God

Distance of God

There are times when God feels distant. There are moments, particularly in times of suffering, when God seems silent. To enter into the stillness of God and to attend to the silence of God requires patience.

God is not a Labrador retriever who comes when we call. God is sometimes like the rain that comes when it will, whether the grass is green or the crops are failing.  Jesus told us that if we ask it will be given, if we seek we will find, and if we knock the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8), but the timing of the giving, the finding, and the opening is not ours to demand. That God will answer prayer happen is guaranteed, but when God will answer is not determined by the one who asks. The timing is in the hands of the One who gives, reveals, and opens.

I believe this is at least part of the meaning behind Psalm 40:1, which says: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.” There is waiting in prayer and with God, who sometimes seems still and quiet from our perspective. This is echoed in 2 Peter 3:8-9, which addresses the timing of the parousia:

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

It is actually God’s patience that causes the apparent delay here; a patience motivated by love for human lives. This reminds us that God’s distance, whether measured in minutes or miles, aims to stir something up within us.

Waiting on God.001

Sometimes that distance of God that we feel personally as waiting is an effort of God to bring a change within our lives, situation, or world. The Hebrew word most connected with the idea of change is shuv, which throughout the Hebrew Bible means to return to God (Hosea 14:1-3; Zephaniah 2:1-3). It is a highly relation concept, often paralleled by the word repentance, conveying that something is wrong between two parties that needs to be repaired; a breach that needs to be retraced through return. The distance of God, even the apparent hiddenness of God, is not random, as we often experience it, but has intention behind it. God aims to stir up our lives toward change and a longing for Him that outpaces anything else. It is a longing that should grip us so deeply that we feel dry and deadened without God. This is why the psalmist describes his longing for God in terms of dehydration in Psalm 42:1-2:

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

“Clouds and thick darkness surround him” (Psalm 97:2) not in order to keep us away but in order to incite our desire for Him even more. It is a desire marked by fervent longing that is evident throughout the Psalms (e.g., 42, 63), but it is also more than that.

When we wait upon God in His apparent distance, we often find ourselves feeling increasingly helpless. Our crutches are stripped away and we become more and more in need. God is bringing us back to the humble naivety witnessed in a child who is not even aware of its utter dependence upon an adult. The psalmist once describes the soul as “a weaned child with its mother” (Psalm 131:2), and Jesus called His followers to receive God’s kingdom “like a little child” (Luke 18:15-17).

Waiting on God.002

While it may not feel like it, waiting on God—looking for God in His apparent distance—is a work of grace from God. In a world where we used to believe we were capable and held power in the palm of our hands, God’s distance brings us into the necessary desperation by which we recognize our utter need (2 Kings 5; Luke 8:40-56; 17:11-19; 18:35-43). We spend a good deal of our life trying to avoid recognizing our utter powerlessness and only God, the almighty One, has both the power and tenaciousness to work us into the place of facing into our need. It is in that place, where we recognize that nothing and no one else can satisfy our deepest desires. When God taps into this hungry need it keeps us awake at night, singing songs of longing for God (Psalm 77). It eventually burns us with awareness of our sin that sends shivers of regret through our broken souls that rises in longing for wholeness (Psalm 51, 80). This longing burns brighter and stronger, making even the smallest taste of God more satisfying than all other goods or pursuits in life (Psalm 84:1-2, 10).

The distance of God and the waiting we experience is a gracious gift that leads us back to an encounter with the living God. It is the promise of God’s glorious presence ahead of us that spurs on in these times:

You make known to me the path of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence,
    with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

It is this longing that sets us on a journey with a focused destination. Over time the destination becomes less about a place and more about a being; that is, God Himself. As in the Psalms of Ascent, we are spurred on from faraway lands to return to the center of all our hopes and joys, which are only satisfied in a holy God, who is both loving and sometimes apparently hidden. All the distance, all the stillness, all the silence cannot hold us back from giving all for the sake of that holy pursuit.

Senior Pastor Video Update in the Time of COVID-19 (April 29, 2020)

Here is my latest video update for Eastbrook Church as we navigate the time of COVID-19. I will continue to re-post these weekly video updates here at my blog for those who have not seen it or who are not part of our church but could use the encouragement. You can watch it here or at the Eastbrook Church Vimeo channel.

 

In this video update I reference Psalm 131, which I am including below in its entirety. You can also read a reflection I wrote about the psalm yesterday, “Finding Peace with God: Praying Psalm 131.”

My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord
both now and forevermore.
(Psalm 131)

The Holy Pursuit of the Hidden God

IMG_1817To enter into the stillness of God and to attend to the silence of God requires patience. God is not a Labrador retriever who comes when we call. God is like the rain that comes when it will, whether the grass is green or the crops are failing. While it is true that, as Jesus said, if we ask it will be given and if we seek we will find and if we knock the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8), but the timing of the giving, the finding, and the opening is not supplied to us. That it will happen is guaranteed, but the when of that event is not determined by the one who asks. Rather, it is in the hands of the One who gives, reveals and opens.

This is at least part of the meaning of Psalm 40:1, “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.” So, too, the words of 2 Peter 3:8-9, which address the timing of the parousia, are relevant to this discussion:

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

It is actually the patience of God that causes the delay here, motivated by the love of God over repentant human lives. This reminds us that the distance of God, whether measured in space or time, aims to stir us up toward repentance. The meaning of repentance is richer than simply asking forgiveness from sins, or even turning away from sin. The Hebrew word for repentance is shuv, which throughout the Hebrew Bible means to return relationally to God (Hosea 14:1-3; Zephaniah 2:1-3). The distance of God, even the apparent hiddenness of God — those times when God seems to play hide-and-seek with us — is intended to make us long for God even more. It is a longing that should grip us to the point where our souls are dehydrated with longing for our God. This is the thrust of Psalm 42:1-2:

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

“Clouds and thick darkness surround him” (Psalm 97:2) not in order to keep us away but in order to incite our desire for Him even more. It is a desire marked by fervent longing that is evident throughout the Psalms (e.g., 42, 63), but it is also more than that.

It is the naivety and dependence witnessed in a child (Psalm 131; Luke 18:15-17). This desire is the last chance of desperation by those who are sick and in need (2 Kings 5; Luke 8:40-56; 17:11-19; 18:35-43). Nothing and no one else can satisfy this desire. It is the desire that keeps us awake at night, singing songs of longing for God (Psalm 77). It is the desire that sends shivers of regret through our souls over the sin and brokenness clinging to us (Psalm 51, 80). This longing burns brighter and stronger, making even the smallest taste of God more satisfying than all other goods or pursuits in life (Psalm 84:1-2, 10). We are spurred on by the promise of God’s glorious presence ahead of us:

You make known to me the path of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence,
    with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

It is this longing that sets us on a journey with a focused destination. As in the Psalms of Ascent, we are spurred on from faraway lands to return to the center of all our hopes and joys, which are only satisfied in a holy, loving God. All the distance, all the stillness, all the silence cannot hold us back from giving all for the sake of that holy pursuit.

||40days|| week three: turn from busyness

What was your schedule like this week? Did you rush around from one event or meeting to another? Did you feel like there wasn’t enough time for everything and everyone?

Legislators in the 1950s expected that as technological advances were made, people would have less work to do and more free time in their lives. Here we stand in 2012 more than half a century later with incredible technological advances that would have been difficult to foresee. Yet, our pace of life has done anything but slow down. Instead, our pace of life and expectations of mobility have increased exponentially.

In the midst of the rush of activity, it is important for us to turn from busyness, even if only for a season. Whether it is taking a weekly sabbath or scheduling seasons of life (like this ||40days||), we must do the hard work of whittling down our activity to enter into healthy and meaningful rhythms of life with God.

Only then will we be able to hear the still, small voice of God. Only then will we be able to enter into the words we encounter in Psalm 131 (NLT):

 1 LORD, my heart is not proud;
my eyes are not haughty.
I don’t concern myself with matters too great
or too awesome for me to grasp.
2 Instead, I have calmed and quieted myself,
like a weaned child who no longer cries for its mother’s milk.
Yes, like a weaned child is my soul within me.

3 O Israel, put your hope in the LORD—
now and always.