when feeling lonely and afflicted

Turn to me and be gracious to me,
for I am lonely and afflicted.
Relieve the troubles of my heart,
and bring me out of my distress.
Consider my affliction and my trouble,
and forgive all my sins.

Psalm 25:16-18; NRSVue

When feeling lonely and afflicted, we need to turn our attention to God. God helps us to find our way out of the wilderness of what often turns out to be our own minds. Our imaginations can run wild in ways that are unhelpful. And it’s hard to get out of that funk. But then and there, we have the opportunity to learn not to react in our own knee jerk way, but instead, put our attention on God and stay there. As we do that in all our weakness, even in the weak but sincere way we do it, God will meet us and help us. All such experience is the opportunity for us to turn our attention to God, and seek to remain there throughout our days, more and more.

giving up on praying is not an option

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” So he said to them, “When you pray, say:

Father, may your name be revered as holy.
May your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything out of friendship, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asked for a fish, would give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asked for an egg, would give a scorpion? If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Luke 11:1-13

We have words from the Lord to teach us how to pray, and simply encouraging us to pray, period. The Spirit helps us as well, and this is especially encouraging because while prayer is something we do, it won’t get through or matter apart from God’s help. But we can be assured that God will help us. We simply must persist. Giving up on prayer is not an option.

What happens at least to me in weakness is that somehow I think I’m short on time to pray. But just the opposite is the case. We can’t afford not to pray. We don’t have time not to pray. There’s actually nothing more important we can do, though rest assured, if we truly pray, we will be doing other things as well. It’s entirely possible that we won’t do as much or get as much done. Though actually we may get more done, certainly in a way that’s better. Apart from prayer, what are we really doing? It will turn out as far as God’s economy is concerned, not very much.

Something like what I’m slowly learning and have to keep coming back to time and again.

devotion to prayer

Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving.

Colossians 4:2

“Thoughts and prayers” especially over gun violence with no change in sight, or desired change even from those who offer that, comes across as mere sentimentality, though I don’t doubt the sincerity of most of them. But is that enough? Of course not. For prayer to make any difference or be real prayer one’s entire being must be involved in it, and for it to have its intended effect, it must be in accord with God’s kingdom present in Jesus. I think of what is most often called “the Lord’s Prayer,” the prayer Jesus taught, and am reminded of just how down to earth that prayer is. It seems to me that the right heavenly perspective is an earthly perspective, and the right earthly perspective will be influenced by a heavenly perspective. I’m borrowing a bit from the discussion our church fellowship had yesterday.

We cannot be too devoted to prayer, individual prayers and prayers together. Prayer is too often treated like an add-on or even mere formality if it’s remembered at all. But it’s really at the heart, and we could say the heart of what we Christ-followers do, even our very existence. Our dependence on God is most evident in prayer, asking- even crying out for God’s help and all that we and others need from God. And God does listen to sincere prayer through Christ, even if Christ is not understood as part of the equation.

Praying is a matter of faith. If our faith is small or nonexistent, we won’t even think of praying, much less do it. But if we’re struggling to grow in faith, if we have faith at all, then it will become evident through our desire to pray, or willingness to do so, to at least be led in prayer. Our prayer habits and life are an important indicator of the health and strength of our faith. Other factors are involved such as spiritual warfare, which can make it difficult to pray, and still other factors, which together can result in prayer being more like wrestling or quiet groaning when we don’t have adequate enough words to speak.

In it all, we need to be devoted to prayer, not letting up on it. God will help us far more than we might think or can imagine as we do so.

in the slog and fog

Incline your ear, O LORD, and answer me,
for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you;
save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; be gracious to me, O Lord,
for to you do I cry all day long.
Gladden the soul of your servant,
for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
Give ear, O LORD, to my prayer;
listen to my cry of supplication.
In the day of my trouble I call on you,
for you will answer me.

Psalm 86:1-7

There are times that seem downright difficult for understandable reasons. There are nagging problems, along with perhaps a thing or two which seem potentially threatening added on. And we look at ourselves and have the strong sense of not measuring up to what we wish we were, wish we would be. We don’t seem to meet the situation in a way which really is helpful, if we’re even meeting it at all. Like on a slippery slope and not getting any footing. Or making little to no progress as if climbing uphill on a sand dune, and having to catch our breath as we do so.

But like the psalmist, that’s when we cry out to God. Things are not what we want them to be, and it seems like there’s no remedy. But welcome to life in this world. Isn’t life tailor-made for looking for help beyond ourselves? To God in prayers? To others who can lend an ear, word, and hand? Try as hard as we may, often we can make the situation worse, or it just gets worse. There is no escape from at least something of this. What we need to do is something like the psalmist, perhaps David does. Confident or at least hopeful by faith that God will help us, that we will learn good in the process (see the entire psalm by clicking the link above). And that in the end of all things, all will be well.

Advent and God’s help to ̶t̶h̶o̶s̶e̶ ̶w̶h̶o̶ ̶h̶e̶l̶p̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶m̶s̶e̶l̶v̶e̶s̶ ̶the helpless

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.

Isaiah 9:2

Light is coupled with life in scripture, and is indeed necessary for the life which truly is life, the eternal life in God through Christ, and the life to be lived in this present darkness. And God is the one who gives all light, and specifically, that light. What humankind comes up with may have some good with its actual source in God’s gift within them, but is not the “great light” spoken of in the text above. As we see from the rest of that text, that light is in Christ and the kingdom (or rule) and goodness he brings.

Yes, it’s good for us to try to help ourselves. But if what we mean by that is to get along well enough by ourselves, then we fail to see what we ultimately need, yes, in this life. All the while we should acknowledge that actually anything good we do is because of the Creator. But in our moral and spiritual darkness and in our limitations as human finite creatures, we really need more than that. It’s good and necessary for us to realize that we are helpless in ourselves to attain to this ultimate good needed. We are all, each and everyone of us, in need of God’s grace.

And that is what happened. God’s people and all peoples were actually helpless in the way needed, whether they were aware of it or not. And they looked for God’s help, and according to the promise for the one to come who would save the world. Part of the light which breaks through is to help us see the need for light in our darkness. And to look to that light for the full light needed. A part of the Advent promise.

Advent ends up being as human as it gets

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place in the guest room.

Now in that same region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Luke 2:7-14

We’re all too human. With that comes wonder, awe, beauty, and just plenty of blessing. But that’s accompanied with great difficulty, struggle, and many conundrums not to mention the unexpected problems and even tragedies which can happen. And we’re all mortal.

What if Advent was all about expecting and experiencing the supernatural in some kind of miraculous way breaking into our world and making everything A-OK? I think plenty of people might settle for that, maybe we all would, whatever works. But Advent and the beginning of its fulfillment which we celebrate at Christmas is as human as it gets. Its fulfillment comes in the birth of a baby boy, but with great promise.

This promise not only enters our world to be with us, which is magnificent enough, but even more, to be one of us, ultimately one with us. This is why it’s important to accept our full humanity and emphasize simply being human as in fully accepting all of that, and all the limitations it brings. It turns out that God in Christ is fully present in that and when it comes down to it, in nothing else, at least not in this promise.

That is how the Advent hope is answered, God humanizing divinity and divinizing humanity, maybe more than so to speak. But helpful for us since above everything else, as humans it would seem that we would benefit the most from human help that is of God, but just the same, human. And because of that, we have all the hope needed, all the hope in the world that no matter what, all will be well beginning in the present to be continued and finished when “the Human One,” Christ, returns.

the necessity and blessing of self-control

For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith…with self-control…

2 Peter 1:5-6

I almost entitled this “the necessity and blessing of good old fashioned self-control” but thought better, since what we’re referring to here is not some stoic (as we mean that nowadays), self-made operation or effort. God’s grace underlies all, as seen clearly in this passage (click link).

But I would like to highlight self-control in a way which puts an emphasis on it. A good friend pointed out to me that it is not self-control, but God’s control which we’re after. Okay, I get the point. But I would counter with something like this: God’s grace and work, and if you want to put it that way and surely this has validity if understood correctly- God’s control, under all of that, we have to exert self-control.

And it’s not like we don’t have opportunities to do that. They are surely multitudinous, many. Think of whatever it is that can get us offtrack: Worry/anxiety, fear, greed, jealousy/envy, lust, anger, harsh words, and rabbit holes of many kinds. You name it. In all of that, in all of life we have opportunity time and again, over and over to exercise self-control.

And we especially need to do this when we feel dead inside, and when all of our impulses would move us otherwise. That may seem like an us-thing and not a God-thing, but self-control is self control. Yes the Spirit can and will help us in this, as it is listed as part of the fruit of the Spirit which in essence is love (Galatians 5:23). But I want to once again emphasize: This is something we do yes with God’s help, but we still do it. We’re not automatons; we do this one might say in cooperation with God. Yes, God’s grace underlies all, every good thing is a gift. But we still end up having to do what is not automatic in and of itself.

In the Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament and I think carried over into the New Testament, God seems to expect people to do better, and over and over again takes especially God’s people to task for doing otherwise. We need to hear this and take it seriously. We will fail along the way, but then we need to exercise self-control then as well, and get out of that ditch through confession and doing what needs to be done to do what is right and good.

A great opportunity for us.

where is God present perhaps more than anywhere else (individually and corporately)?

The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying.

Acts 9:11; NIV

When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.

Acts 4:31

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with groanings too deep for words.

Romans 8:26

We really don’t know what we’re doing when we pray (the same holds true when we read scripture), because it is really quite over our heads. It’s as they say, a God-thing. God is in it. And I am referring to real prayer.

When we have a sense of being caught up in that, it’s wonderful, or at least we have the sense that it’s more than just ourselves. But even when we feel lost, oppressed, and it seems like we’re doing nothing, we still do well to make the attempt, to continue in prayer. Real prayer is not dependent on us, but on God. However we have to make the attempt. From some scripture, I have to wonder if God doesn’t count the tears and cries of people in trouble as prayer. I think so, but whatever may be the case in that, we do well to lift up our hearts, thoughts and concerns to God. God meets us there. God is very present there.

This is blessedly true in our individual lives, and we should make a daily practice of this. But it is all the more true in our corporate “church” life. When we pray together, maybe we can say Christ is not more present, but all the more present. It’s as if that Presence becomes exponential from our hearts being joined together, part of what is central in God’s will.

Yes, God is quite present in our prayers. Poor as they may be. And most of mine are. And the ones that may not seem to be are only from what God gives me. God is with us in Christ and by the Spirit. And especially in our prayers.

Note: God is present everywhere, but in this post I mean God’s manifest presence. Where God’s presence is somehow made known.

be patient with yourself

And let endurance complete its work, so that you may be complete and whole, lacking in nothing.

James 1:4

I just about entitled this, “don’t beat up on yourself.” Or it could have been, “don’t give up.” But “be patient with yourself” is apt for the point I want to get across.

It can be rather perplexing at times, and downright discouraging just how weak and wrong we can be over something happening, some circumstance or ongoing problem in life. Anyhow, I’m speaking for myself.

But as followers of Christ we can be sure that God will help us come around, grow, and see God’s hand in whatever situation we’re in, even if it’s just to help us through it in a way that’s honoring to the Lord.

In the meantime, we need to practice being patient with ourselves. As we come around and follow through on what God wants.

putting on the whole armor of God: the sword of the Spirit, the word of God

Takethe sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Ephesians 6:17b

Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

James 4:7b

And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God has willed
his truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo! his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.

And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we tremble not, for God has willed
that truth will triumph through us.
Though Satan rant and rage
and fiercest war engage,
such wrath we can endure,
for evil’s doom is sure.
One little word shall end it.

Martin Luther, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (traditional, Voices Together Hymnal)

One thing for sure: We are in a spiritual battle. I’m always glad for the respite and relief that comes after that. But I don’t think evil rests. God keeps us and is indeed a mighty fortress for our protection. But as this passage from Ephesians reminds us as followers of Christ and as the church, we face opposition that at its heart is as crafty as it is pure evil.

We are no match for this. So our strength is only in God and our hope to stand in the spiritual battle only in the armor God gives us to put on. And there is one offensive weapon in that armor: the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

That seems to suggest a word that the Spirit gives. We could say it’s the word of the gospel in the Word who is Christ. It is perhaps more likely a needed and fitting word given and spoken at the needed time. Some say you have to say it out loud, even as the story is told, Luther used to do, throwing inkwell at the evil presence. I remain skeptical about that, thinking that these spirit beings might well be able to penetrate our thoughts. They certainly send thoughts our way. Not sure any of this matters one way or the other, though I stand to be corrected. It seems to me more than enough to accept the needed word from God, the rest taking care of itself, God taking care of it.

What we can be sure of is that while we’re to stand our ground firmly against the onslaught of evil, we also have a powerful, penetrating spiritual weapon at hand. God will help us by the Spirit to know what that needed word is in that instance, individually and especially together as church. In and through Jesus.