Tag Archives: Deliverance

The Song and the Story

The Song and the Story (CaD Ps 136) Wayfarer

to him who led his people through the wilderness;
His love endures forever.
Psalm 136:16 (NIV)

Psalm 136 is one of the most fascinating of all the songs in the anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics we all the book of Psalms. The ancient Hebrew songwriter crafted it in such a way that the the meaning and metaphor of the lyrics are as much in the structure as they are in the words. First, there’s the organization of the the theme:

  • Six verses about creation
  • Six verses about the Hebrews deliverance from slavery
  • One verse about the Hebrews being led through the wilderness
  • Six verses about the Hebrews conquest of Canaan
  • Four verses that echo/summarize the previous themes
  • A final call to praise God

There is no other psalm in the anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics that utilizes the call and response device as this song does. Twenty-six times the refrain “His love endures forever” is used. That number is important because for the ancient Hebrews, the letters of their alphabet also did double-duty as numerals. Every letter was used as a number. When you add up the numerical values of the letters of the Hebrew name for God: YHWH (Note: the Hebrew alphabet doesn’t have vowels) the total is, you guessed it, 26.

As I thought about the structure of the song, I couldn’t help but think that it parallels every life story, my life story.

I have a creation story. There’s the time in which I was born, the family in which I was raised, the community of my childhood, and the events that set me on my path in life.

Like the Hebrew exodus from slavery, I have climactic events that shape and define my life journey. My decision to follow Christ and subsequent call to proclaim His message, my being cast in a film and meeting the mentor who would play an instrumental part in my life, my early marriage, the births of Taylor and Madison, the divorce that would end my first marriage after seventeen years, and the unexpected arrival of Wendy in my life.

Like the Hebrew wilderness experience, I have my own stretch of life’s road in which I wandered in the wilderness of my own choosing. I chose the path of the prodigal. I ran. I squandered. I was unfaithful to those I loved most. I had my own pig-slop “Aha!” moment. I had to find my way back.

Like the Hebrew conquest, I have my own slate of victories in life. I have accomplishments, awards, and successes.

And, through it all, God’s faithful, enduring love is woven through every major success and every tragic failure. His love is woven through my best moments and my worst. In his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul wrote that at the end of the Great Story that contains all stories, including mine, there are three things that remain: faith, hope, and love. he adds, “The greatest of these is love.”

In the quiet this morning, as I look back at my own story, I am realizing just how much God’s love shows up like the repeated refrain of Psalm 136. I am also reminded that like the 26 love refrains the song writer metaphorically employed to point me to God, Yahweh, I am pointed to a God who is love incarnate, which is the destination and goal of my entire story and life journey through this world. If I’m not growing into love in increasing measure as Jesus defined it, then I am (perhaps even with the best of intentions) headed in the wrong direction.

“It’s a Miracle!” (or Not)

"It's a Miracle!" (or Not) [CaD Ps 76] Wayfarer

His tent is in Salem,
    his dwelling place in Zion.
There he broke the flashing arrows,
    the shields and the swords, the weapons of war.

Psalm 76:2-3 (NIV)

M’luv, Wendy, is a living human radar when it comes to parking lots. As we pull into any parking lot, her parking spot radar goes into overdrive as she spies all of the open spots available. She will begin giving me all of my options:

“There’s a spot in the next row back there. I see one a little closer but down another row. I think there might be one behind that giant truck…”

Often, while she’s still regaling me with all of my options, I’ll simply pull into the first spot I see. This is when Wendy says…

Or, not.”

In yesterday’s post/podcast, I mentioned that the song of thanksgiving amidst a time of national uncertainty is believed to be connected to a specific historic event. In 701, the Assyrian King Sennacherib laid siege to the walled city of Jerusalem. The events are recorded in both 1 Kings 18-19 and 2 Chronicles 18. In what the people of Jerusalem considered a miraculous event, they woke up one morning to find that the entire Assyrian army lay dead and Jerusalem was miraculously spared from destruction.

Many scholars believe that today’s chapter, Psalm 76, is a victory song from the same event. And it does seem to fit. Listen to these lyrics and imagine the citizen’s gazing over the city wall to see the Assyrian army lying dead:

The valiant lie plundered,
    they sleep their last sleep;
not one of the warriors
    can lift his hands.
At your rebuke, God of Jacob,
    both horse and chariot lie still.

By the way, an account of the campaign against Jerusalem from the Assyrian perspective also exists. It admits that the siege of Jerusalem was unsuccessful, but leaves out any details and instead claims a moral victory for the successful subjugation of the other towns in the region. (It sort of reminds me of fans on sports talk shows who try to cushion the blow of a bitter defeat to a rival team by diminishing the loss).

I find it hard to separate the ancient Hebrew song from the seemingly miraculous event believed to have inspired it. As a follower of Jesus, I believe that miracles can and do happen. At the same time, the Great Story makes clear that the miraculous does not always happen. God may have spared the people of Jerusalem from the Assyrian army, but just a hundred years later the Babylonian army would lay waste to the city with horrific destruction. Why one and not the other? Welcome to the mystery.

Similarly, along my life journey, I have experienced miraculous events. I’ve also experienced events which, despite the desperate pleas and prayers of many, ended with lament rather than thanksgiving. There was no miraculous deliverance. Wisdom tells me that the latter does not negate the former, and the former does not assure the latter. Peter was miraculously delivered from prison in Acts 12, but there was no deliverance for him from Roman prison and his subsequent execution. In fact, Jesus told Peter to expect an uncomfortable end to his earthly journey.

This leaves me, as a follower of Jesus, holding the point of tension. It’s the same as Daniel’s friends living in Babylonian captivity and threatened to be thrown alive into a crematorium (see Daniel 3). They made it clear to the Babylonian King that they believed God could miraculously deliver them from the flames, but even God did not it would neither change their faith nor their actions. God broke through with a miracle in that case, but I could cite many examples that didn’t end so well.

Among the examples of those that did not end with miraculous deliverance is a German pastor and theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed in a Nazi concentration camp. In one of his most famous quotes, Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a person, He bids them ‘Come, and die.'” In the quiet this morning, I’m reminded that one of the things I’ve learned to which I must die as a follower of Jesus, is any demands I’d like to make on what my story within the Great Story looks like, or how it ends.

Sometimes the miracle is part of the narrative of the Great Story (Peter escaping the Jerusalem prison), and sometimes the suffering is part of the narrative of the Great Story (Peter being executed in Rome).

It’s like being Wendy in a parking lot.

“God, you can work a miracle here. You can deliver me over there.”

“Or, not.”

The Impotence to Respond

But God will break you down forever;
    he will snatch and tear you from your tent;
    he will uproot you from the land of the living.

Psalm 52:5 (NRSVCE)

David was hiding in a cave in the middle of a desolate wilderness with a rag-tag group of outcasts and mercenary warriors. He may have been God’s anointed king, but the throne was still tightly under the control of his father-in-law, Saul, and Saul had made David public enemy number one. That left David scratching out a meager existence in the middle-of-nowhere as he hid from the powerful mad-king who wanted David dead.

In an act of desperation, David sneaks in to visit God’s priest, Ahimelech. Like an enemy soldier seeking sanctuary in the protection of a church, David went to the place where the traveling tent sanctuary from the days of Moses was set up and serving as the center of worship. David sought God’s divine guidance through the priest. David begged for help and was provided food as well as the sword of Goliath that was still housed there like a trophy.

It just so happened that a servant of Saul name Doeg was there and witnessed David’s visit. Doeg goes to King Saul and tells him of David’s visit and the assistance Ahimelech provided David. Saul confronts Ahimelech who attempts to argue that, as the king’s son-in-law, the priest felt an obligation to assist David as an act of faithfulness to Saul. Saul rewards Ahimelech by telling Doeg to kill him, and all of God’s priests living in the town, along with all of their wives and children. Saul has Doeg massacre an entire village of his own people and his own priests because one priest showed kindness to David.

One of Ahimelech’s son’s survives and seeks David in his hide-away cave He tells David of Doeg’s visit to Saul and subsequent massacre. David, realizing that his visit to Ahimelech started the chain of events leading to the massacre, feels the weight of responsibility for his actions.

David, as he always did with his intense emotions, channels his feelings into a song which is known to us as Psalm 52. It’s today’s chapter.

David’s song is fascinating in its structure. The first verse is David addressing Doeg and calling out his wickedness, arrogance, treachery, and deceit. The third and final verse is the contrast, with David claiming his standing in the right, trusting in God, and proclaiming that trust directly. In between the two verses is the central theme in which David hands Doeg over to God for God’s judgment. He relinquishes vengeance and retribution to God.

In the quiet this morning, I couldn’t help but put myself in David’s shoes. David was in a position of impotence. He’s hiding in a cave in the wilderness. He has no status. He has no standing. At this moment there is nothing that he can do in his own power to right the wrong that resulted from his actions. His only option is to cry out his emotions and ask God to right the wrong he is powerless to address himself.

What a powerful word picture. In this life journey I have found myself impotent to address and correct wrongs. Thankfully, the wrongs are trivial in comparison to the massacre of innocents David was dealing with. Nevertheless, I find in David an example to follow. Pouring out and expressing my rage, frustration, accusation and consciously handing over that which I am powerless to do to God.

As I contemplate David’s story, and his lyrics, this morning I find myself with two connected thoughts into the day ahead:

First, Paul writing to the followers of Jesus in Rome, who were impotent agains a Roman Empire that would throw them to the lions in the Roman Circus and watch them being devoured for entertainment:

Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”
Romans 12:17-29 (MSG)

Second, the simple prayer of serenity:

God,
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Amen.

While We Wait for Deliverance

I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord,
    the deeds for which he is to be praised,
    according to all the Lord has done for us—
Isaiah 63:7 (NIV)

We love stories of the lone hero. The mysterious figure shows up out of nowhere to aid the victim(s) of injustice and take out the bad guys who are oppressing the many. We see echoes of this theme from chivalrous medieval tales like Robin Hood, to the great Westerns like High Plains Drifter, and even the classic Samurai movies of Kurosawa.

As I often say, all good stories are echoes of the Great Story. In today’s chapter the prophet Isaiah presents us with a poetic vision of Messiah who stands alone in doling out wrath and vengeance to the oppressive enemies of His people. This theme, and Isaiah’s imagery, is intricately wound into the visions of John’s Revelation, which would come hundreds of year’s later.

Isaiah’s poem starts out all bloody wrath as Messiah alone dispenses divine justice. Then, Isaiah’s poem turns to reveal the kindness and compassion towards the victims of injustice. Isaiah proclaims this kindness towards a rebellious and undeserving people who, in Isaiah’s current circumstances, are suffering from the destruction of their nation and God’s temple. The poem ends with a plea for that mysterious hero to show up.

I’m reminded this morning that we all go through times in our lives which seem dark and hopeless. We long for a hero, mighty to save, to dispense justice. Our hearts pour out pleas for deliverance as an unceasing mantra. Both of these are longings for that which we do not control. Yet amidst the two, the hope for a Deliverer and our pleas for deliverance Isaiah places a simple act:

I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord,
    the deeds for which he is to be praised,
    according to all the Lord has done for us—

In this morning’s Wall Street Journal there was an article with advice for those who chronically worry. One expert advised that people “tell themselves a different story.” I think that’s exactly the example Isaiah provides us. Even in the darkest of times, as we wait for deliverance and better times to come, we can recall the stories of blessings we have been graciously afforded, and ways that God has strengthened, provided, and shown us faithfulness.

Unexpected Twists of Plot

“But I know where you are
    and when you come and go
    and how you rage against me.
Because you rage against me
    and because your insolence has reached my ears,
I will put my hook in your nose
    and my bit in your mouth,
and I will make you return
    by the way you came.
Isaiah 37:28-29 (NIV)

Things did not look hopeful for the residents of Jerusalem. The city was under siege by the Assyrians. The trash-talking parley of the Assyrian field commander had instilled fear in the hearts of the men on the walls, standing in defense of the city. Inside Jerusalem’s temple courts the king of Judah, Hezekiah, held conference. The ancient prophet Isaiah was there. Once again, we have a front row seat, and eye-witness account of history.

There are two things I find fascinating about the events described in today’s chapter.

First, Isaiah repeats an earlier prophetic message: The Assyrians had been acting as agents of God. Even the field commander in yesterday’s chapter claimed that they were acting at the behest of Israel’s God:

“‘Furthermore, have I come to attack and destroy this land without the Lord? The Lord himself told me to march against this country and destroy it.'”

One of the lessons that I have learned along my journey through God’s great story is that things aren’t always as cut and dried, black and white, or simple as some would like it to be. God using the “bad guys” as His agents? Really?!

This isn’t the only place in the Great Story in which this happens. The subsequent Babylonian empire would also be prophetically tapped as God’s agents. Reading the story of Daniel, we find that God took keen and special interest in Nebuchadnezzar, the evil king of Babylon. In the story of Israel’s greatest King, David, God seemingly pulls his support of the sitting King (Saul) and sends the anointed King David as a mercenary to fight for Israel’s enemies.

The second thing that strikes me in today’s chapter is the eucatastrophic deliverance of Jerusalem. Isaiah tells King Hezekiah that the Assyrians had been acting as agent’s of God, but now the jig was up and God was going to deliver Jerusalem from Assyria’s hands. At the moment when things seemed darkest for the people of Jerusalem, hope was going to miraculously break.

The next morning when light dawns, the Assyrian army were all laying dead.

The Assyrians had actually divided their army to conquer two different cities. King Sennacherib was laying siege to Lachish while his field commander was laying siege to Jerusalem. Isaiah records that when Sennacherib hears of the mysterious death of his forces at Jerusalem he withdraws from the region and heads home.

This morning I’m once again reminded not to place God in a box. I don’t completely understand why the Author of Life uses certain characters such as Nebuchadnezzar and Sennacherib in the plot line of the Great Story. I don’t understand why God miraculously delivers Jerusalem from Assyria and then allows Babylon to destroy it. It reminds me, however, to hold on loosely in judgement of current events on a grand scale. The Great Story is often a thriller with unexpected plot twists. Just ask the Assyrian field commander.

Public Fear; Personal Assurance

It has been fascinating for me to watch the post-election panic and fearful protests on the streets of many American cities since the election. Fear leads us to behave in interesting ways, as it has throughout human history. People are people, and the fearful residents of Jerusalem c. 701 B.C. are also displaying their fear in public ways.

Look, their brave men cry aloud in the streets;
    the envoys of peace weep bitterly.
The highways are deserted,

    no travelers are on the roads.
The treaty is broken,
    its witnesses are despised,
    no one is respected.
Isaiah 33:7-8 (NIV)

The fear in Jerusalem is well justified. The dreaded army of the regional superpower, Assyria, has swept through the north and is now moving on Jerusalem. It is a large army well-trained, well-equipped, and battle hardened. It is an army unlike anything the people of Jerusalem have ever faced. The Assyrian army’s reputation for destruction, violence, and brutality has preceded them.  It is no wonder that order is giving way to fearful chaos on the streets of Jerusalem.

It is always darkest before the day dawns, it has been often said. That is the overarching theme of Isaiah’s message in today’s chapter. In darkness we tend to grasp for light. If the power goes out we seek flashlights and candles, when things get spiritually dark we reach for God. The ancient seer describes the fear of Assyria leading the people to repent and call on God for deliverance, and he then promises that deliverance.

Jerusalem will not fall to Assyria, Isaiah proclaims, though it will not be delivered by human effort:

Your rigging hangs loose:
    The mast is not held secure,
    the sail is not spread.
Then an abundance of spoils will be divided
    and even the lame will carry off plunder.

A wealth of plunder and spoils, but not from anything the people of Judah have traded for. The word picture is of a trade ship that has sailed no where. So where will the all the spoil and plunder come from? God is going to deliver it personally. God will deliver the people of Judah from the Assyrians.

This morning I am thinking about how Isaiah’s message was received by his family, friends and neighbors who were shaking in fear. I have a hard time believing that it was accepted heartily. I doubt that it provided many with comfort and assurance. Rampant fear is not so easily assuaged, as current events bear witness.

Nevertheless, I look back on my life’s journey and recall many times of corporate fear. As a child I learned to duck and cover from a Soviet nuclear strike, and as an adult I watched friends and family stockpile gold, guns and supplies for the apocalypse that was feared with the new millennium and the Y2K virus.

I understand that some threats are real and some fears are justified. Still, if I am truly a follower of Jesus, then my heart tells me that Jesus’ personal teaching should always trump public fear:

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.” Matthew 6:33 (MSG)

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Over and Over and Over and Over and Over

In recent months I’ve been reading articles about the release of the script of J.K. Rowling’s production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. There is a certain amount of frustration among fans who purchased what they thought was a book, only to find that it is actually the script of the stage play. Of course, a novel and a script are two very different things. They both tell a story, but in very different ways. A script requires something more of you as a reader. The author gives you the characters words, but you have to use your imagination to fill in more of the blanks. It’s understandable that many are experiencing frustration with it.

Along my journey I’ve come to understand that there is a similar frustration among those who undertake the reading of God’s Message from Genesis through Revelation. It’s not a novel. It’s not a script. It’s a compilation of writings (and different types of writing) authored across a large section of history. The content is not categorized chronologically but by author and the type of writing. It tells a story, but in a very different way than the way we are used to reading stories. It requires something of me as a reader to connect the dots and see the larger picture.

Even as I wade into the writings of Isaiah, it’s important for me as a reader to understand that I’m reading a smaller compilation of Isaiah’s prophetic poetry. I have to step back and look at the larger picture. I have to connect the dots. I have to see the patterns.

One of the patterns that emerges in prophetic writing is the repeated, cyclical themes of sin, judgement, deliverance, and redemption. I can see it already in the first few chapters:

The people rebel against God:

I reared children and brought them up,
    but they have rebelled against me.
Isaiah 1:2

The consequences of rebellion are God’s judgement and punishment:

Your men shall fall by the sword
    and your warriors in battle.
And her gates shall lament and mourn;
    ravaged, she shall sit upon the ground.;
Isaiah 2:25-26

When the people repent of their ways, God delivers:

On that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel.
Isaiah 4:2

Ultimately, God redeems and restores in glorious ways:

 Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over its places of assembly a cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night. Indeed over all the glory there will be a canopy. It will serve as a pavilion, a shade by day from the heat, and a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.
Isaiah 4:5-6

This repetition happens over and over and over and over and over and over again. In the compilation of Isaiah’s writings this pattern can be seen on a macro level (Chapters 1-39 are much heavier on judgement; Chapters 40-66 are much heavier on deliverance and redemption). The pattern can also be seen on a micro-level within a chapter or a few verses. The theme is repeated continually.

This morning I’m thinking about the cyclical, repetitive nature of my own behaviors. No matter how hard I try, I sometimes do or say things that are just wrong or inappropriate. When that happens, things don’t go so well. Relationships are strained or broken. Sometimes I suffer from the consequences of those inappropriate words or actions. I feel guilty. I am guilty. I repent, turning to Jesus whose sacrifice for me on the cross affords forgiveness, mercy, and grace in spite of my repetitive bullheadedness and boneheadedness. Redeemed, not by what I’ve done, but what God has done for me, I humbly and gratefully continue to let go of what is behind and press on to love others as Jesus loved me.

Over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over….again.

The Power of the One Ring (Not THAT One)

Those twelve stones, which they had taken out of the Jordan, Joshua set up in Gilgal, saying to the Israelites, “When your children ask their parents in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground.’
Joshua 4:20-23 (NRSV)

I have a ring that is worn on a chain around my neck. Those who know my life-long love of Tolkien are likely to think it some homage to the ring of power in Lord of the Rings. The ring around my neck may be a ring of power, but its power is not in magic, elves, wizards, or the stuff of imaginative fantasy. The ring around my neck was a gift to me from Wendy. She gave it to me before we were married, and its power is in the meaning it holds for her, and for me.

The ring was and is, for Wendy, a special reminder of a waypoint in her own spiritual journey, and the things God had done in her heart and life. These things are a part of her story, thus they are hers to tell and I will leave it at that. When she knew that I was to be her husband and that God was bringing me into her story, the ring became a gift to me. It always hangs around my neck. It is a ring of power, even if its power is limited in significance to Wendy, me and God.

Memorial [muh-mawr-ee-uh l] noun. Something designed to preserve the memory of a person, event, thing, etc.

In today’s chapter, the people of Israel were called to create a memorial. Twelve stones, one stone for each tribe, were piled as a reminder of what God had done in drying up the River Jordan so that they could cross. They would preserve the memory of that event. When future generations asked about the pile of stones, they could learn the story.

We generally think of memorials as a reminder of people after they die, but memorials can be a powerful tool in other ways. When God does something special or remarkable in the life of a person, a couple, or a family, it is an opportunity to create a tangible memorial of His faithfulness, provision, deliverance, miracle, answered prayer, or etc. The memorial can be a powerful reminder, even if its power or significance is limited to the person, couple, or family involved.

Today, I’m thinking about the ring that has hung around my neck for nearly 11 years, and the fact that 99.9 percent of the time I forget that it’s even there. But, I catch sight of it in the mirror as I shave, or I feel it pop out of my t-shirt when I bend over, and it reminds me of Wendy, her journey, and her gift. It reminds me in the moment of what God has done in her story, in my story, in our story. I am reminded once again of grace, provision, and redemption.

Therein lies the power of the ring.

 

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Chapter-a-Day Isaiah 10

Schoolyard bully. And on that Day also, what's left of Israel, the ragtag survivors of Jacob, will no longer be fascinated by abusive, battering Assyria. They'll lean on God, The Holy—yes, truly. Isaiah 10:20 (MSG)

I still vividly remember my first experience with a bully. I was a 2nd grader at Woodlawn Elementary school. I had been excused from class to use the bathroom and he came in. He was in 3rd grade and a lot bigger than me. He started to threaten me for no other reason than to see the fear in my eyes and feel a sense of sadistic power. He started telling me he was going to find me after school and beat me up. I was so scared it was a good thing I was already in the bathroom.

I can still remember the terror. My heart pounded. I could think of nothing else the rest of the day. I was terrified of the final bell and my walk home. Even when I got home I was petrified. I worried about the next day at school. I worried about going into the bathroom and finding the bully there. I worried about walking to and from school. I had a hard time getting to sleep. I couldn't get the bully out of my mind, and how I could possibly elude him at every point of my day.

It's easy to get focused on problems and troubles. They seem so huge and overwhelming. If we're not careful, the people who plague us and our daily pains can take up a disproportionate part of our mind share. It's hard to keep things in perspective if our eyes are only zeroed in on that which we fear.

Jerusalem, under seige, were so taken with their enemy, the bully Assyria, that they were psychologically defeated. The prophet Isaiah's eye, however, was not looking at the Assyrian army surrounding the city. He was looking to God. Isaiah saw that God was about to provide an amazing, miraculous deliverance.

Where will I focus my thoughts today?

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and trixer