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Three Psalms for Holy Week

Tuesday April 11 2017

Three Psalms for Holy Week

A handful of psalms are quoted in the Gospels. Here are reflection questions about three psalms that have strong connections with Jesus’ journey to the cross.

Psalm 69
Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.

Psalm 69 is one of the most often cited psalms in the Gospels, and two of those quotations occur in Holy Week: John 15:25 and John 19:28. The mood of the entire psalm, with the pleas for deliverance and deep sorrow, evokes the events of Holy Week that take Jesus to the cross. As you pray this psalm, imagine you are praying it with Jesus.

Questions for reflection

  1. What do you need deliverance from right now? What about your community and the world beyond?
  2. As you walk with Jesus to the cross and feel some of his sorrow, what do you want to thank him for?

Lord Jesus Christ, I take you for granted. I forget the pain you suffered for me, for all people, and for the entire creation. Help me to see your love more clearly.

• • • • •

Psalm 41
Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.

On Thursday of Holy Week we remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, when he gave them instructions and prayed for them (John 13-17). Judas, who ate bread with Jesus and the other disciples, then left to betray Jesus (John 18:1-11). It’s so easy to view Judas’s actions as something quite extraordinary, but all of us have the tendency to betray those we love.

Questions for reflection

  1. In what ways have you behaved so unkindly to people you love that they may have felt betrayed?
  2. When you have acted unkindly toward others, what helps you turn back to God to receive forgiveness?

O Lord, the capacity for betrayal is so powerful in me. Be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you.

• • • • •

Psalm 22

I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.

Psalm 22, a plea for deliverance from suffering and humiliation, is another of the psalms quoted most frequently in the Gospels. Two of those quotations, in John 19:24 and 19:28, occur just before Jesus’ death, in the account of the soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ clothes and of Jesus’ being thirsty right before he dies. “It is finished,” Jesus then says (John 19:30), his obedience to the point of death bringing us salvation and peace with God.

Questions for reflection

  1. What do you most need to learn from Jesus’ death?
  2. Spend some time in silence, pondering the gift of Jesus’ death for you.

Lord Jesus Christ, Redeemer and Savior, thank you for your sacrifice for us. Thank you for your great love that took you to the cross.

Dunedin event - For those of my readers who are women in Dunedin, I am leading a women's retreat on Saturday 6 May from 10 to 3. The theme is "Falling in love with Jesus afresh: Jesus' encounters with women." Location is Leith Valley Presbyterian Church, 267 Malvern Street. If you'd like to come, please let Nancy Parker know: 021-457-360, parkernmr@gmail.com.

(Excerpted from my Lenten Devotional, Draw Near. Next week: Spiritual Practices for the Easter Season. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.) 

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: Dave's story

Tuesday April 4 2017

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: Dave's story

Back about 17 years ago I interviewed my husband Dave for my book on midlife, specifically on the topic of drawing near to God with the heart. In the book, Dave is called "Don," and most readers wouldn't have known it was my husband. Now, almost two decades later, he's happy to be identified with the words he said then. In fact, he is amazed at how true his words still are for him. Dave’s story:

I became a Christian through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship when I was a graduate student. InterVarsity got me into studying Scripture, to see what’s really there, to be grounded in the Word. I still love to study the Bible and underline parts of it.

Now, I find I also like to spend time thinking about Scripture and singing Scripture songs. I like to let Scripture speak to me and question me, rather than me being the one who asks all the questions. Scripture brings out confession because I know how short I fall. I enjoy contemplative prayer in groups, waiting on God rather than just studying about God.

When I go for walks, I enjoy just being able to stop and smell roses, to look up close at flowers and experience them. I like to stop and observe things, small details. Recently we walked in a park with lots of roses. We were surrounded by them, and it felt like heaven. In my twenties, I would rush by. Experiencing God’s goodness in daily life is more real to me now.

I’m getting comfortable with the side of me that is sensitive and likes to experience things. I’ve noticed I cry more easily. I cry in movies, in worship, and particularly during praise songs. Sometimes the worship service is over, and I have tears streaming down my face, and I’m embarrassed as I turn to talk to the people next to me. I can’t control it, but I’m learning to be less embarrassed by it as I accept that part of me.

When you’re young, you’re always looking ahead to being older when things will be better. Or you take for granted that good things will happen again, but they rarely do. I didn’t reflect then on how precious certain things are.

My father’s death a few years ago affected me a lot. I was with him when he died, and it was like he was teaching me how to die. It was his last lesson for me. Death no longer has its sting. I’ve been afraid of death all my life. But now I’ve been with death. I find I want to talk about heaven more, to focus on eternal things, things that are unseen. All this we see is going to turn to dust.         

The summer my father died, he showed me all his old blueprints from his job as an engineer. This is the television van he designed, with the camera mounting. He was retired then, and I think he knew he was dying. Those blueprints put my own work into perspective. Someday someone will clear out all my stuff. This freed me not to be so obsessed with my work, not to take it so seriously.

I realize how short my time is on earth, so I find myself savoring what I experience. It lifts me up to the Lord and gives me a longing for heaven where our experience of God will be much more direct and vivid. I find myself saying, “Thank you that I experience this air, this smell.” Since I know my death is approaching, I try to savor this world. My senses are more focused now and I long for God in a way I never experienced before.

This is the last post in a series about Drawing Near to God with the Heart. Previous posts:

Introduction: Drawing near to God with the heart         
God woos us          
A journey with the Psalms           
Praying the Psalms       
God's presence through the Holy Spirit          
Facing the inner darkness         
Tears          
All will be well           
Longing for heaven         
What do you want?

(Next week: Three Psalms for Holy Week. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post is excerpted from my book, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife, available in paperback here and on kindle here.)

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: What do you want?

Wednesday March 29 2017

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: What do you want?

What do you want? Not what do you wish for, what do you fantasize about, what have you added to your list of priorities, but what do you want? What do you long for? What makes your tongue hang out like that of a thirsty deer? What is your heart’s desire? We don’t often inquire that deeply into ourselves, and if we do, we may not listen very closely to the answer. That is because the answer can be frightening. What we want, at the core of our being, often will take us out of the set paths of our lives and those of society. We want the thing that is no thing; we want what cannot be gotten by any effort or kept by any attentiveness or displayed for any admiration. We want God. David Rensberger, “Thirsty for God”[1]

This is the second to last post in the series “Drawing Near to God with the Heart.” For my weekly readers, I hope the series has made you think about the way you engage your heart as you seek to draw near to God with an attitude of love and obedience. When we think about our deepest desires, as reflected in the words above by David Rensberger, we are connecting our hearts with our faith.

So many of the current trends in Christian spirituality reflect the significance of the heart:

  • God in nature - Many Christians today talk and write about God’s presence in nature in a sensory way that draws them in a profound way to both worship and creativity.
  • Sabbath - Many Christians find Sabbath-keeping a way to integrate God’s call to service with God’s call to live simply as a creature dependent on God’s grace.
  • Benedictine and Celtic spirituality - Increasingly, Christians enjoy the utter simplicity of the Benedictine pattern of a rule of life, as well as the holistic faith expression of Celtic Christian spirituality, where God’s presence is experienced in all of life, and all the diverse bits and pieces of life are integrated into one whole.
  • Meeting God in the arts - Christians are discovering or rediscovering the significance of the arts as a way to engage non-cognitively with truth.
  • The significance of the Holy Spirit - God’s daily presence through the Holy Spirit also relates this theme of God’s call to experience him with our hearts, our souls, our whole being.

As you seek to love and follow God, may this prayer from the hymn “Be Thou my Vision” be real to you:

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light

This is the eighth post in a series about Drawing Near to God with the Heart. Previous posts:

Introduction: Drawing near to God with the heart         
God woos us          
A journey with the Psalms           
Praying the Psalms       
God's presence through the Holy Spirit          
Facing the inner darkness         
Tears          
All will be well           
Longing for heaven         

(Next week you’ll have a treat. Seventeen years ago I interviewed my husband, Dave, about the ways his faith had moved to his heart in recent years. His thoughts are still so relevant today. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post is excerpted from my book, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife, available in paperback here and on kindle here.)

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: Longing for heaven

Thursday March 23 2017

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: Longing for heaven

In The Sacred Romance, Brent Curtis and John Eldredge discuss the significance of a healthy understanding of heaven. If we live as if this world is all there is, they write, we will place a burden on our experience here on earth that this world was never intended to bear. We will continually try to find heaven on earth, which is impossible, and “we will live as desperate, demanding, and eventually despairing men and women.”[1]

Instead, if we can understand and rejoice in the truth that one day God will make all things whole, and that we will live in heaven in unblemished joy and contentment in God’s presence, our lives on earth will be transformed. This life is definitely not as good as it gets. The best is yet to come.

Mercifully, we get glimpses of heaven in this life. Imagine that a wonderful party is happening nearby, with the most luscious music in the world, and every now and then a bit of music escapes from the party and we get to enjoy it. In the same way, glimpses of heaven permeate our lives on earth. It takes time and effort and being present in each moment for us to be able to notice those glimpses, but the glimpses are worth any effort. They illuminate our lives and gladden our hearts.

Glimpses of heaven, when we can receive them and rest in them, nourish the heart and soul. Those moments of clear vision and certainty lift us up to God and illumine our daily lives. Seeking those glimpses is a worthy endeavor. We rejoice when our seeking brings us what we long for. We also need to grow in acknowledging that our lives on earth will be characterized much more by seeking than by finding.

C. S. Lewis, in both his fiction and non-fiction writings, helps us get in touch with our longing for heaven. Lewis describes the “lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off.”[2] He believed this longing is one of the best things about our pilgrim state. In Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he used the word “joy” to describe the piercing longing, both bitter and sweet, that we experience when we remember a vivid memory or catch a brief glimpse of heaven. This kind of joy is distinct from pleasure or happiness, and it taps into the emptiness and spaciousness that Gerald May describes.

Lewis’ friend J. R. R. Tolkien explained this kind of joy as “a sudden and miraculous grace . . . beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”[3] This joy is inextricably connected with our longing for heaven and our realization that this life is not all there is. Lewis reassures us:

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.[4]

Lewis believed that our sense of exile is inseparable from our perception of beauty, which emphasizes again the significance of art, music, poetry, and all things that minister beauty to our hearts. As we accept our state of longing, and as we experience glimpses of beauty that remind us of heaven, our hearts will grow soft and receptive to the grace of God.

This is the seventh post in a series about Drawing Near to God with the Heart. Previous posts:

Introduction: Drawing near to God with the heart         
God woos us          
A journey with the Psalms           
Praying the Psalms       
God's presence through the Holy Spirit          
Facing the inner darkness         
Tears          
All will be well            

(The series continues next week with "What do you want?" Illustration by Dave Baab: Central Otago from a photo by Ian Thomson. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post is excerpted from my book, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife, available in paperback here and on kindle here.)

[1] Curtis and Eldredge, The Sacred Romance, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997),179.
[2] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Macmillan, 1980). 16.
[3] J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams, ed. C. S. Lewis (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1981), 81.
[4] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, 16-17.T

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: All will be well

Wednesday March 15 2017

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: All will be well

In the Psalms we read, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me” (Ps. 34:4). God meets us and cares for us and answers our prayers. At the same time, the Psalm writer acknowledges, “my tears have been my food day and night” (Ps. 42: 3). We ache to see God’s pure beauty and majesty in the face of this broken world we experience every day. We long to be free from all the seductive desires that sidetrack us so often. We long to see the people we love freed from illness, addictions, pain, and suffering.

We are people with such a mix of thoughts and emotions inside of us, and the Psalms help us so much as we strive to live in the tension of pain and joy. In Living with Contradiction, Esther de Waal writes,

The psalms allow me to face my inner conflicts. They allow me to shake my fist at God one moment, and then next to break out into spontaneous song. I am angry, but then I am grateful. I complain at the bitterness of my lot, and then I rejoice at the untold blessings which I receive. If I discover the fullness of my own humanity I also discover the many faces of God. If the story of the people of Israel and their struggle in holding on to the covenant is also my own story, the psalms leave me in no doubt, as to the difficulties involved in that relationship. That in itself is consoling. For here is a people who experience struggle and sacrifice, who know the light and the dark, hunger and thirst, who grumble and complain, and who rejoice and praise – and who have no inhibitions in doing this completely openly and vigorously.20

The variety of emotions in the psalms is stunning: praise and thankfulness can transition into sorrow, vindictiveness, discouragement and tears within only a few verses. As I wrote in two earlier posts (here and here), the psalms have encouraged people throughout the ages to bring all our passions and concerns, and even all our pettiness and irritation, into the presence of God. There is no human emotion that is foreign to God; nothing surprises him. “You have searched me and known me. . . . You discern my thoughts from far away” (Psalm 139:1, 2).

We live in joy because God loves us, and we can know that love in Jesus Christ. We live in longing and emptiness because sin and death still have so much power. Our hearts are full, and our hearts are broken. We are thirsty for the One who can meets us in our longing.

David Rensberger reassures us:

Our thirst for God will be satisfied. Once we have become aware of this yearning, once this passionate need and longing has opened up with us, we can hear a stream off in the distance gurgling toward us. We bend every effort to find that stream. However strong or persistent our efforts, though, they are insignificant compared with the mighty rush of water coming to meet us. Though we may try to slake our thirst elsewhere, the Living Water will find our parched mouths. It will not be our small dippers that finally bring the water to our tongues. Rather, it will be the desire of the Water itself to meet our need, the love of the One whom we have struggled to learn to love, that will overcome our last resistance and pour delicious satisfaction on our aching lips. [2]

Rensberger’s words provide such a delightful contrast to the conflicts described by Esther de Waal and expressed so vividly in the Psalms. Truly Jesus calls us to bring to him our hearts, our souls, our very beings – no matter how conflicted or painful – because he is giving back to us his heart of love in a mighty rush of Living Water. All will be well.

This is the seventh post in a series about Drawing Near to God with the Heart. Previous posts:
Introduction: Drawing near to God with the heart         
God woos us          
A journey with the Psalms           
Praying the Psalms       
God's presence through the Holy Spirit          
Facing the inner darkness         
Tears          

(The series continues next week with "Longing for Heaven." Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post is excerpted from my book, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife, available in paperback here and on kindle here.)

[1] Esther de Waal, Living with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse, 1989, 1997), 130.

[2] David Rensberger, “Thirsty for God,” Weavings, July/August 2000, 25.

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