Let the nations be glad!

May God be gracious to us and bless us, andcause His face to shine on us.

So that Your way may be known on the earth, your salvation among all nations.

Let the peoples praise You, O God; let all the peoples praise You.

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy; for you will judge the peoples with uprightness, and guide the nations on the earth.

Let the peoples praise You, O God; let all the peoples praise You.

The earth has yielded its produce; God, our God, blesses us.

God blesses us, so that all the ends of the earth may fear Him.

 

Psalm 67 is unusual in the Hebrew scriptures in that it shows a concern for the Gentiles to know God.  Rather than calling for God to punish or destroy them like we find in other places, it wants them to be saved.  The psalmist assumes that the way the Gentiles will turn to God is through seeing how Israel is blessed.  In other words, it asks God for blessing not out of self-concern but out of a desire to demonstrate that God is so much more able to provide for his people than other gods, that the nations would be better off following him.  It’s an apologetic not very popular in evangelical circles these days, partly through concern about the rise of prosperity teaching.

The psalm has five paragraphs, two of which are essentially repeated – verses 1-2 and 6-7, verses 3 and 5, and verse 4, which stands on its own.  This is a classic Hebrew poetry pattern of A B C B A where paragraphs A mirror each other providing an introduction and conclusion, paragraphs B mirror each other focussing in towards the main theme, and paragraph C in the middle which is the crux of the poem.  The essence of this is that unlike in European poetry, which generally builds towards a conclusion in the last line, in Hebrew poetry the most important bit is in the middle.  In other words, the whole word can rejoice, because when they turn to God they too will be blessed.

An important point to notice is that in verse 2, the word for salvation in Hebrew is Yeshua – the Hebrew name of Jesus!  We could equally read it that the psalmist is praying that all nations will know Jesus.  This is what we as mission workers also are looking for, and we can be encouraged that as God blesses us we can use his miraculous provision for us as a witness to others.  Even in adversity the comfort and strength we receive from God can be a testimony to our neighbours.  Many of us, just like the psalmist, will be telling them that our God is stronger/more compassionate/more holy/more real than their idols, and hoping to reveal that in the way we live our lives, so that they too can come to know Yeshua.

I try to pray this psalm daily, as a reminder that when God blesses me, it’s not for me to keep for my own benefit – it’s for me to use to show his wisdom and power to a world which does not yet know him.

 

Peace and calm in the midst of danger

Llangollen“He lets me laze in green meadows, stroll alongside babbling brooks, and it refreshes my soul.”

A slightly loose rendering of Psalm 23 sounds positively idyllic.  It’s something that we all long for, that place of peace and rest where we can truly relax and recharge our batteries. Whether it’s a tropical beach, a snow-covered mountain or a green meadow, we know we need it.

So why is this sheep’s experience of God so different to ours?  Most of us have lives and ministries full of arguments, crises, funding gaps, regulatory demands and enough stress and turmoil to make a postcard on the fridge door the closest we get to experiencing the soul-restoring work of the Good Shepherd in our lives.  Has he led us on the wrong path?  Where did it all go so wrong?  While we may long for the pleasant experience of the green pasture, the truth is so very different.  Or is it?

The ‘sheep’ writing this Psalm also had times of terrifying darkness.  He knew that there were enemies out there trying to get him.  Life is difficult, dangerous and short for a sheep on its own.  In those challenging times we need to stay close to the protection and provision of the shepherd.  We need to trust that no matter how bleak things look, there always remains the possibility of the green pasture.  The Shepherd doesn’t banish the danger and threats, but protects us in the midst of it.

What does that mean to us in practical terms, as we battle through the Cairo traffic, face up to the threat of insurgents or try desperately to meet the needs of our church from our limited resources?  We do ministry in places where it seems peace is impossible to find, yet we know that without it we face the risk of burnout and having to leave the field.  How can we maintain our resilience?

We need to learn to take little pieces of the green pasture experience with us into the darkness.  One example is to pause for regular times of prayer.  As I am writing this the alarm on my phone struck 9.00, so I stopped work and went to a peaceful place to pray, just for a few minutes.  I bring the peace back with me into the workplace.  Another example is that I often find myself driving through a post-industrial area of my city which as scarred by derelict warehouses, railway viaducts and graffiti.  I could choose to see it as soul-destroying, but instead I look out for the poppies that bloom defiantly in the wasteland, and allow my soul to be refreshed.

True soul-refreshment is found not only in getting away from the stress and burden of everyday life, but also by intentionally bringing peace into it.

Deep roots

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Last week I introduced our series on resilience by quoting Paul’s attitude to his “momentary, light afflictions” (2 Corinthians 4:17).  As I pointed out, these included arbitrary arrest, attempted lynching and transport accidents.  Things which would drive most mission workers to head for home on the first flight, if they hadn’t already been recalled by their HR departments.  So how come Paul was not perturbed by these challenges?  How could he be stoned and left for dead one day, and the next day go to the neighbouring town and carry on preaching the gospel (Acts 14:19-21)?

Paul had deep roots.  He was utterly convinced of God’s love for him despite such trials (Romans 8:38-39).  He was completely persuaded of the need for humanity to hear the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:16), and death held no fear for him because he knew what would happen to him after he died (Philippians 1:20-24).  This enabled him to keep his suffering in perspective – it was nothing compare to what Christ had suffered for him.

How do we develop these deep roots?  To use a sapling as an analogy, trees develop deep roots by going through hardship in the first place.  We know that we need to stake a young tree to stop it blowing over in the first place, but what most of us do not know is that if we stake it too tightly, it is stable and will not develop deep roots.  Only if it’s allowed to wave in the wind will its roots go deeper into the ground to provide more stability.  The more it shakes, the further the roots will go seeking rocks to hang onto.  For us, those rocks are God, and the great truths of our salvation.  When the storm strikes, our response should not be to doubt our calling, or to wonder why God did not help us when we needed him.  It should be to confess our trust in him despite our outward circumstances, as many of the psalms do.

In the psalms we read the thoughts of people going through great trials.  David on the run from a man trying to kill him (Psalm 7), or people taken into exile to a country where they find it hard to worship (Psalm 137).  Yet in many of the psalms which honestly cry out “Where are you God?” there are also great statements of faith and trust, such as in Psalm 13:

How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?

…but I have trusted in your love and my heart will rejoice in your salvation.

Even the 23rd psalm, a great favourite of many who suffer,  acknowledges the existence of the valley of the shadow of death, something to be afraid of, and enemies close at hand, at the same time as trusting in the comforting presence of the shepherd.  Indeed, if all were well, the sheep would not need the shepherd – it’s the very presence of danger and hardship that reminds the sheep of her vulnerability and makes her stay close to the shepherd.

This is why the psalms are a comfort for so many going through hardships – they do not ignore the tragedies and injustices of life, and confess God’s glory and faithfulness as a way to make sense of suffering.  In doing so, the psalmist reorientates himself back to trusting in God as he reconciles his belief in God with his difficult circumstance, either by confessing faith in the midst of adversity or by turning his accusation into a prayer for deliverance.  Having done this, he puts down deeper roots, finding greater stability and life-giving nutrients which will sustain him when the next disaster strikes:

He will be like a deep-rooted tree growing by a river:

It bears fruit in season and its leaves do not wither when there is drought.

Deep Calls To Deep

9781841017310-l“Much of our spirituality is geared toward relieving our pain and finding ways to ensure happiness, success and well-being… Those who face struggles in their walk with God are accused of unbelief or dismissed as lacking in faith or strength of character…”  So writes our favourite author Tony Horsfall in his latest book, Deep Calls To Deep.

So when we are suffering, where in the Bible can we turn to for encouragement?  To Job, who rails against his situation and receives a revelation of God which silences him but brings no understanding of what actually happened?  To Paul, who seems to brush suffering off as “momentary, light afflication” (2 Corinthians 4:17)?  Or to James, who tells us to be glad because it’s worth it in the long run for our character development (James 1:2-4)?

Tony suggests we should turn to the Psalms to find authors who really understand what we’re going through.  He reminds us that many of them were conceived in pain, whether in David’s fugitive years or the subsequent exile in Babylon.  In Deep Calls To Deep, Tony effectively uses Walter Brueggemann’s observation that the Psalms contain psalms of orientation (when all is right with the world), disorientation (when everything has gone wrong), and re-orientation as the psalmist reconciles the difference between the world he experiences around him and the worldview which he holds.  Tony selects some psalms which show evidence of these characteristics to unpack and expound, looking for the encouragement even in the dark places that God deliberately takes us into for the sake of our own spiritual formation.

Tony taps into the honesty and emotion we find in the psalms in a way that helps us to engage with the writers and realise that they shared the feelings that we struggle with, yet held onto God in the midst of pain and confusion.  Tony comments:

We can never squeeze human suffering into a box where we can understand it, analyse it or fathom it. And recognising that God uses the difficulties of life to shape and mould us is not meant to trivialise suffering or offer a simplistic solution to the pain we face. What the Psalms teach us is to trust in God even when we don’t understand, when there seems to be no reason for our pain, and indeed our suffering seems disproportionate. They teach us to be content with mystery and not-knowing. This is part of the work of formation that God is doing in us in the darkest of nights, and the only way that faith can come to maturity is through the path of suffering.

Tony HorsfallIn a unique innovation, Tony accompanies every chapter with a letter from someone who has been through their own darkness and soul-searching, among them the pastor suffering from depression, a young couple with a severely ill baby, and a couple who have both suffered from long-term illness for 20 years.  These are not necessarily fairy tales in which they all lived happily ever after, but show how ordinary people grapple with suffering and come out the other side.

Deep Calls To Deep is short, well-written and easy to understand.  We thoroughly recommend it to anyone struggling to come to terms with the suffering they have undergone or witnessed.

Deep Calls To Deep can be bought direct from the publishers BRF Online.