Prayers for a Nation

On this day when our nation inaugurates a new President and Vice President. I have chosen to pause my regular Scripture-based devotional. Instead, I am moved by the Spirit to share two prayers from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Common Worship.

The first is for our newly elected and installed government leaders:

O Lord, our governor, your glory shines throughout the world.  We commend our nation to your merciful care, that we may live securely in peace and may be guided by your providence.  Give all in authority the wisdom and strength to know your will and to do it.  Help them remember that they are called to serve the people as lovers of truth and justice; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

The second is a prayer for our nation:

Almighty God, you have given us this good land as our heritage.  Make us always remember your generosity and constantly do your will.  Bless our land with honest industry, sound learning, and an honorable way of life.  Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way.  Make us who come from many nations with many different languages a united people.  Defend our liberties and give those whom we have entrusted with the authority of government the spirit of wisdom, that there might be justice and peace in our land.  When times are prosperous, let our hearts be thankful; and, in troubled times, do not let our trust in you fail.  We ask all this through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

May our prayers be heard as we begin on a new path.

(Photo courtesy of kiplinger.com)

Trust

Praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord, my soul.

I will praise the Lord all my life;
    I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
Do not put your trust in princes,
    in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
    on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God.

He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
    the sea, and everything in them—
    he remains faithful forever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
    and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
    the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
    the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the foreigner
    and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
    but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.

10 The Lord reigns forever,
    your God, O Zion, for all generations.

Praise the Lord.

Psalm 146 (NIV)

Trust is something which is earned. Through consistent actions, an individual can acquire the trust of others. Children are quicker to trust others because they have less life experience involving people not demonstrating actions consistent with their promises. Many of us may struggle on both sides of the trust coin. We see unfulfilled promises and lose trust in individuals and human institutions. At times, we are incapable or choose not to fulfill promises which we make to others. In both situations, trust crumbles. We become wary of others. Once trust deteriorates, it takes time and effort to rebuild.

The psalmist speaks to us today about trust. In the words of the psalm, we are warned not to place our full trust in humans and human leaders. Even the most trustworthy have a finite ability to follow through on plans and promises. The psalmist tells us to place our trust in the Lord. This is followed by a litany of how the Lord has consistently cared for the most vulnerable of our society. By listing these consistent care patterns, the psalmist is making a case to support trusting in God. In addition, we are reminded that the Lordis faithful, the faithfulness endures forever because the Lord is forever.

All of us experience challenges in our lives. The Lord places individuals in our lives to assist us during these times. Institutions have been created out of necessity to address larger issues. The important thing to remember is humans, and the institutions which we create, have limits and will fail at times. Trust in these will be broken, rebuilt, and then broken again. Only the Lord can be trusted every time. First, and foremost, trust in the Lord who is forever and consistently provides for all in need. As the Lord works through humans and our institutions, good is provided. A healthy perspective is important. Remember, humans and institutions will have times when they do not carry out the Lord’s work and will break our trust. Only God can be trusted completely so place your trust in the Lord.

A Celebration

Lord, you are my God;
    I will exalt you and praise your name,
for in perfect faithfulness
    you have done wonderful things,
    things planned long ago.
You have made the city a heap of rubble,
    the fortified town a ruin,
the foreigners’ stronghold a city no more;
    it will never be rebuilt.
Therefore strong peoples will honor you;
    cities of ruthless nations will revere you.
You have been a refuge for the poor,
    a refuge for the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the storm
    and a shade from the heat.
For the breath of the ruthless
    is like a storm driving against a wall
    and like the heat of the desert.
You silence the uproar of foreigners;
    as heat is reduced by the shadow of a cloud,
    so the song of the ruthless is stilled.

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
    a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
    the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
    the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
    he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
    from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
    from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.

In that day they will say,

“Surely this is our God;
    we trusted in him, and he saved us.
This is the Lord, we trusted in him;
    let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”

Isaiah 25:1-9 (NIV)

This is the time of year when we are engaged in a lot of celebrating with a lot of food. The year in which we are in  has seen a lot more modification to our celebrations due to the pandemic. Still, many reports indicate that people are making a lot of food at home this year. Celebrations have moved from public venues to more intimate and private gatherings in homes. Either way, the celebrations continue.

Isaiah speaks of the greatest celebration yet to come. He shares how the Lord has broken down the ruthless powers of the world. The manner in which God has looked out for the disadvantaged is recalled. All of this leads up to the time when the Lord will prepare a massive celebration. Isaiah tells us that at this banquet, the best food and drink possible will be set before us. The party favors include the destruction of death and the end of sorrow. All will be honored and lifted up. He tells us that at this celebration the Lord’s saving actions will lead to great rejoicing.

Many of us long for an end of the pandemic. I am sure that when the virus finally is under control, there will be celebrations to the magnitude which have not been seen since the day World War II ended. Yet, even as large and impressive as our celebrating might be on that day, there is no comparison to the celebration of which Isaiah foretells. Try to envision singing and dancing of all people together without any conflict or animosity.  Let your mind taste the richness of the food and drinks of which you will partake. Imagine never having to fear illness, grief or death ever again. These are the promises of the Lord. Your invitation to the party is waiting.

Making Requests

May God be gracious to us and bless us
    and make his face shine on us—[b]
so that your ways may be known on earth,
    your salvation among all nations.

May the peoples praise you, God;
    may all the peoples praise you.
May the nations be glad and sing for joy,
    for you rule the peoples with equity
    and guide the nations of the earth.
May the peoples praise you, God;
    may all the peoples praise you.

The land yields its harvest;
    God, our God, blesses us.
May God bless us still,
    so that all the ends of the earth will fear him.

Psalm 67 (NIV)

We are quickly approaching our Christmas celebration and the end of another year. Many people have been sending greetings to one another. Usually these greetings communicate a desire for the receiver to have a merry Christmas and a blessed new year. When people think about what would make a merry Christmas, they may consider time spent with family and friends. The stronger thought which enters many minds is the hope to receive just the right gifts. Similarly, a blessed new year conjures thoughts of no problems, being prosperous, and maintaining positive physical and financial health. What truly is a merry Christmas and a blessed new year?

The writer of this psalm speaks of blessings from the Lord. The psalm begins with a familiar benediction, a hope that God will be gracious, will provide blessings, and be present. The reason for this request is so that the Lord’s ways will become known. Then the requests continue with a focus on the praise of God. Concluding the psalm is an acknowledgement of what the Lord has already provided with an additional request that God continues to bless the people.

Reading this psalm, it almost appears like a Christmas request list from a group of believers. A list given to God instead of Santa Claus. There is nothing here which would be misaligned with the hopes of all of God’s children. Yet I am stopped in my thoughts by a set of nagging questions…

  • What am I doing to make this wish list a reality?
  • How am I seeking God’s face?
  • In what ways do I encourage others to praise the Lord?
  • Am I showing God gratitude for the blessings already given?

Maybe these questions might be yours as well. Take a moment to ponder these questions. How do you respond? Are there changes you may need to make? What do your Christmas requests to God look like? How are you working to fulfill those requests?

Leadership Transitions

22 After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized. 23 Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming and being baptized. 24 (This was before John was put in prison.) 25 An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. 26 They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”

27 To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. 28 You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ 29 The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. 30 He must become greater; I must become less.”

John 3:22-30 (NIV)

One of the hallmarks of the way in which our nation is governed is the peaceful transition of power following an election. This is a closely followed tradition at every level of government from the President of the United States to the members of our local school boards. This type of transition sets our nation apart from many other countries. Nations which have adopted a variety of forms of democracy have emulated this quality of the United States. Even in very contentious elections, this hallmark has always been honored. The transition of power is a well-orchestrated process. How smoothly this occurs is based on the character of the individual in leadership prior to the election.

The passage from John’s gospel is about a transition of power. Prior to John baptizing Jesus, John had been the heralder of the Messiah and the one chosen to prepare the people for the coming of God’s kingdom. John was a leader who drew many people to himself. Once Jesus had been baptized by John and had begun his ministry, the process of transition was placed in motion.

Today’s passage brings Jesus in close physical proximity to John. Both men were continuing to teach and baptize the people who came to them. Because they were in the same area, a person came to John to point out that more people were going to Jesus than John. This is when we get to see the nature of the leadership of John. He reminds them that he had already said he was not the Messiah but instead he was to point others to the Messiah. Then John indicated that it is proper for the transition to take place. Jesus is to be the one who gathers more people to him while John’s influence is to diminish.

Transitions can be easy or very difficult. When the transition involves power and influence, the nature of the transition is amplified among humans. John, the Baptist, provides an excellent role model for leaders. Instead of fighting to retain power, control, and influence, a strong leader acknowledges the need for transition. The leader gracefully lessens the role which they now play and welcomes the new leader. This is the model which has been followed in our country since George Washington. This is the model of a servant leader. May we always see this model followed by all our leaders this day and forever more in our nation.

Hope In Despair

Hear my prayer, Lord;
    let my cry for help come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
    when I am in distress.
Turn your ear to me;
    when I call, answer me quickly.

For my days vanish like smoke;
    my bones burn like glowing embers.
My heart is blighted and withered like grass;
    I forget to eat my food.
In my distress I groan aloud
    and am reduced to skin and bones.
I am like a desert owl,
    like an owl among the ruins.
I lie awake; I have become
    like a bird alone on a roof.
All day long my enemies taunt me;
    those who rail against me use my name as a curse.
For I eat ashes as my food
    and mingle my drink with tears
10 because of your great wrath,
    for you have taken me up and thrown me aside.
11 My days are like the evening shadow;
    I wither away like grass.

12 But you, Lord, sit enthroned forever;
    your renown endures through all generations.

Psalm 102:1-12 (NIV)

This year has been filled with times and situations which can bring great despair to people. The last nine months of dealing with the effects of a global pandemic has taken a noticeable toll on the mental health of our nation. The economic distress which is a result of the pandemic has placed many businesses and people in a perilous state. Social unrest, unmasking of inequality, and dangerous human interactions have caused us to question our national institutions and behaviors. A very contentious election cycle has shaken our understanding of democracy and the principles which have sustained our nation. We cry out for an end to this pandemic. We beg for a better way to live out the words of the Declaration of Independence in regard to all people being equal. Our desire for honesty and adherence to the democratic principles which have made our nation a beacon of hope in the past, leads us to shout a heartfelt plea. All of this year’s events drive us to our knees in prayer and lament before our Lord.

The words of the psalmist found in Psalm 102 can be our words as we reflect on this year. The psalmist writes from a point of great despair. This psalm begins with a plea to the Lord to listen to this musical prayer. There is a sense of urgency found in the plea. Then the psalmist lists all the afflictions in life which lead to despair. Following the listing of hardship and feelings, the psalmist shifts direction by acknowledging the greatness of the Lord, a greatness which extends throughout all generations. Clearly the psalmist is raising up the source of hope in the midst of despair.

As I pointed out, this can easily become our own song. We can clearly list before the Lord all aspects of life which lead us to despair now. Our list will be both personal and corporate in nature. We desire deeply the Lord’s willingness to hear us and to respond quickly. In coming before the Lord with our pleas, we are affirming that we believe the Lord is great enough to turn the events of this year around. The greatness the Lord has displayed in previous generations is still present today. This greatness is truly what gives us hope.

Give Thanks

Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase and may enter and possess the land the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors. Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you.

Observe the commands of the Lord your God, walking in obedience to him and revering him. For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.

10 When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.

Deuteronomy 8:1-10

Today our nation pauses to give thanks for all the abundance and positive aspects of our lives, This particular year has been a very difficult one for our nation and our world. The global pandemic has touched every one of us in some manner. In addition to the effects of the virus, we have witnessed all forms of disasters. The economy has taken a heavy hit with a record number of unemployed and hundreds of small businesses, and even some long-existing corporations, closing or declaring bankruptcy. Our country has experienced violence, protests, and a very contentious election cycle. This year’s events could easily cause people to ask what there is to be thankful for as we reflect. Yet we are not the first group to encounter a year of significant hardship and pain. Folklore indicates that after a year of death and great hardships in the New World, a surviving group of Puritan settlers held a festival of thanksgiving in their new land. The story even includes an invitation to Native Americans who had provided the newcomers with skills that aided in their survival. These settlers gave thanks for what they had been given which allowed them to live.

In today’s  passage, the Israelites are preparing to arrive in a land which God had promised them. Moses speaks to them about their journey through the wilderness. He reminds them of all which God had done for them during this leg of their journey. He tells them to keep God’s commands as a response of thanks to God. Then Moses speaks to the people about their entrance into a land full of abundance. Again, he tells them to keep God’s commands in this new land. He instructs them to offer praise to God for this land of abundance once they have been filled. They had experienced many years of hardship and God provided during those years. They would experience a land of great abundance which God has provided now. Moses makes it clear that God’s giving in both situations should give reason for the people to offer thanks both in praise and in action.

Now we pause for one day, like many generations before us in this land and others throughout the world. During this year’s hardships, God has provided. Through people reaching out to assist during a natural disaster, God provides. In the dedicated service of healthcare workers, emergency responders, teachers, grocery store employees, delivery drivers, restaurant employees, and countless others, God provides. The hundreds of researchers and health science departments who have worked tirelessly for answers, God provides. This is when we must take time to reflect on God’s abundance and offer our thanks in praise and action.  We have even more reason to do so when life is difficult. 

Be Careful

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.

He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.[a] A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.

When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.”

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 11 How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12 Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Matthew 16:1-12 (NIV)

One of the blessings and curses of the time in which we live is the internet. With the introduction of the worldwide web and search engines, we have all types of information available to us almost instantaneously. Being able to search for answers to our questions and having access to all kinds of news from throughout the globe is indeed a blessing. The curses with this are the overload of information bombarding us every second of the day, and the accuracy of the information and news we receive. Human bias and interpretation are always at play. Even media outlets which used to be reliable sources of information insert opinion and slants to all of their reporting these days. But as we see in the verses from Matthew today, this danger is nothing new.

Jesus has another exchange with the Pharisees and Sadducees. They are clamoring for a sign which they hope to use against him. He refuses because he tells them they cannot even understand the signs which are now before them. Then leaving in a boat with his closest disciples, Jesus gives a warning to the disciples to be careful of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The disciples misinterpret Jesus’s warning because they are focused on the bread which they forgot. After Jesus addresses their worry, he reiterates his warning. Now the disciples understand that the yeast which Jesus mentioned in his warning was actually the teachings and information. The ability of this information to change and inflate a person’s thinking can be a problematic influence.

There is a lot of information readily available in the world today. In the midst of all that information is truth and lies. The warning which Jesus gave the disciples is even more important for us today. We have witnessed how information can impact the way people think and act. When this information is designed to mislead or misinterpret, it can have a damaging result. Jesus’s warning reminds us to be cautious when receiving information. Know the source of the information. Crosscheck what you read or hear. Discuss the information with others, especially some who have a different point of view. If what you are receiving is in regard to faith and theology, make sure that it is in agreement with what you understand to be the nature of the Lord. Heed Jesus’s warning today and take the time to be cautious.

Citizenship

12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

15 All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16 Only let us live up to what we have already attained.

17 Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Philippians 3:12-21

Election Day has arrived in the United States. Many voters have cast their votes prior to today through absentee, mail-in, or early voting. Today is when those votes, along with the ones from people who go to the polls today, are added together to determine who has been elected. This year we vote not only for senators, representatives, county officials, judges, and city officials but also for the President of the United States. There is uncertainty this year if we will know the winner of the election or not tonight. No matter what, it is the duty and responsibility of every citizen to participate in the election by voting. If you are reading this when the polls are still open in your area and you have not cast your ballot, stop reading and go do so right now. If you have already voted, thank you.

In the passage today from Philippians, Paul speaks of being citizens of heaven. He tells us that this citizenship has been obtained through Christ.  Paul reminds us that we should turn our heads from what is behind us. Our faces should be toward what lies ahead. We should set the goal of striving after Christ’s example. Some will focus on what they can obtain now, on earth. Paul encourages us to reach for what is obtainable with our heavenly citizenship.

On this day when our citizenship in the United States is front and center, Paul’s words speak important ideas to us. Being reminded that we have citizenship in heaven puts our earthly one in proper perspective. With citizenship comes responsibility. Our citizenship in the United States carries a core responsibility as well, exercising our right to vote. Our heavenly citizenship gives us the responsibility to follow the example of Christ.  As we complete the election cycle, Paul’s reminder to look ahead is important. We cannot change the past nor can we change the results of the election so we need to move forward. In our moving forward we can work on changing opinions as God guides us, this may result in changing our own opinions at times. No matter if the election goes the way you desire or not, never forget that we are all citizens of the United States and more importantly, citizens of heaven.

No Division

22 Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. 23 All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”

24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”

25 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. 26 If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? 27 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

29 “Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.

30 “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

Matthew 12:22-32

On June 16, 1838 after accepting the nomination to be the Republican candidate for the United States Senator from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech addressing slavery. Lincoln said in the speech, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” The speech became known as the “House Divided” speech which would later be published and quoted often. Lincoln lost that particular election.

It is clear that Abraham Lincoln knew his Bible. The words he used as part of his speech were the exact words Jesus used in his response to the Pharisees. The Pharisees were accusing Jesus of using the power of Beelzebul to cast out demons. Jesus points out the absurdity of that claim because if true, Satan’s house would be divided against itself. He even goes on to imply that the Pharisees words could be seen as blasphemy against the Spirit which is the only unforgivable sin.

Today we live in a world of great division, especially in the United States. We are in the process of electing the leadership of our nation. I think that all current and potential leaders in the government and in our churches would benefit from examining Jesus’s and Lincoln’s words once again, or maybe for the first time. A divided house, country, or church cannot stand long. Division breeds hate and hate leads to destruction. As absurd as the claim of the Pharisees which would mean division in evil’s house, division in our homes, nation and churches is equally absurd. Division breeds all things contrary to the love of God. We need to commit to healing the divide and demand it of our leaders.