Create in Me

I want to start this devotional with a disclaimer. When it comes to prayer, you can learn different techniques, read lots of books, attend seminars, etc. yet in the end prayer is simply talking to God. You already know how to do that. So as valuable as those teachings are, talking is at the center of what prayer is all about.

But using a disciplined approach to prayer can enhance that conversation, especially during Lent. I recently met with my church’s youth group and suggested that we think of prayer like protective TARPS…so we should include Thanksgiving, Adoration, Repentance (confession), Petition, and Supplication.

Our study of Psalm 51 continues as we move through David’s confession of his sins to the petition part of his prayer. This is a wonderful reminder of the parts of prayer. Today we land in the repentance>petition place of David’s prayer:

Psalm 51 (Common English Bible)

Purify me with hyssop and I will be clean;
    wash me and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and celebration again;
    let the bones you crushed rejoice once more.
Hide your face from my sins;
    wipe away all my guilty deeds!
10 Create a clean heart for me, God;
    put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!

David’s pleas reflect how heartbroken he is over his sins. The reality of what he has done before God has resulted in feeling as though his bones are crushed. He begs God to remain in him and not remove the Holy Spirit from him. Can you relate?

11 Please don’t throw me out of your presence;
    please don’t take your holy spirit away from me.
12 Return the joy of your salvation to me
    and sustain me with a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach wrongdoers your ways,
    and sinners will come back to you.

Confession and repentance always lead to pardon.

Where is God calling you to plead for a new, clean heart? Is there any hidden or unconfessed sin that you should be dealing with right now?

Don’t carry that burden anymore. God is ready to return the joy of your salvation back to you and will sustain you with a willing spirit.

Create in us clean hearts, oh God.

The Joy of Salvation by Karen Warlitner

The Mighty One

Today’s Psalm speaks of a mighty God, but not in the way we have experienced in recent readings. We have been focusing on God’s power to redeem and save. We’ve been reading about God’s compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. We’ve learned that he numbers and knows the stars…by name! All of these things are mighty and true.

But today’s reading is a reminder of other aspects of God’s might. Here we see that God summons the rising and the setting of the sun. This is lovely, and it brings us comfort to know the power God has over his creation.

The rest is not as comforting.

Psalm 50 (New Revised Standard Version)

The mighty one, God the Lord,
    speaks and summons the earth
    from the rising of the sun to its setting.
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
    God shines forth.

Our God comes and does not keep silence,
    before him is a devouring fire,
    and a mighty tempest all around him.

The imagery changes to a God who comes with a devouring fire. A mighty tempest surrounds him. He will not be silent. Why? What does he say?

He calls to the heavens above
    and to the earth, that he may judge his people:
“Gather to me my faithful ones,
    who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!”

His role as judge is laid out. He calls to heaven and earth to be witnesses to his power. He comes to love, yes, but also to judge. This aspect of God’s relationship with us is too often diminished.

When we favor the image of God as “Jesus is my forever friend,” we dilute the aspect of God that comes to judge the quick and the dead. Don’t be fooled. God will judge us according to his righteousness. His righteousness includes all that is just, right, fair, and holy. He cannot abide unrepentant sin, so he sent his only Son to make a sacrifice on our behalf. He kept his end of the covenant. We need to keep ours. But be aware…God will judge us according to HIS plumb line, not the world’s.

The heavens declare his righteousness,
    for God himself is judge. Selah

We are inching our way toward the season of Lent, when we examine our behavior against God’s expectations. May this Psalm be the beginning of that process, and may God judge us and find us among the faithful ones, who make and keep a covenant with him.

Heaven and Earth Witness His Power by Michelle Robertson

How Pleasant

I am in Florida as I write this, and the “real feel temperature” is 36 degrees. What the heck? Part of my reason for being here is to visit family and enjoy long runs in perfect temperatures. If I wanted to run in 36 degree weather I could have stayed home. Plus the winds are almost 20 MPH. NOT pleasant indeed.

Think of the things you experience that bring instant pleasure. A great cup of morning coffee, the sound of a friend’s voice in unexpected phone call, a soft, fluffy blanket, the snore of a big yellow Lab who lies contentedly in the sun at your feet….these things are pleasant.

Today we are going to listen to a psalmist talk about pleasant things. I find that in the midst of things that are wholly unpleasant (politics, news, the pandemic, math equations) it is good to take a moment to consider something pleasant. Maybe the yellow Lab has figured something out.

According to Psalm 147, it is pleasant to praise God:

Psalm 147 (New International Version)

Praise the Lord.

How good it is to sing praises to our God,
    how pleasant and fitting to praise him!

We could just stop there. Praising God does many things for us. It takes our focus away from our troubles. It ushers us into his presence. It benefits us by bringing sunlight into our present darkness. But most of all, it is good and fitting to praise him because he deserves it.

The Psalmist goes on to explain why:

The Lord builds up Jerusalem;
    he gathers the exiles of Israel.
He heals the brokenhearted
    and binds up their wounds.

We praise God because he brings all of us out of exile and back home again. We praise him because he heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.

Are you broken hearted today? Are you wounded by someone’s words, actions, betrayals, or dismissal of you?

Praise him anyway.

He determines the number of the stars
    and calls them each by name.
Great is our Lord and mighty in power;
    his understanding has no limit.
The Lord sustains the humble
    but casts the wicked to the ground.

This Psalm echoes Isaiah 40 by reminding us that God numbers and names the stars. He also numbers and names his people.

Sing to the Lord with grateful praise;
    make music to our God on the harp.

He covers the sky with clouds;
    he supplies the earth with rain
    and makes grass grow on the hills.
He provides food for the cattle
    and for the young ravens when they call.

Everything around us is a gift from God. His care and provision are extended even to the young ravens.

10 His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse,
    nor his delight in the legs of the warrior;
11 the Lord delights in those who fear him,
    who put their hope in his unfailing love.

The invitation today is to put your hope in God’s unfailing love. Your strength and your self-reliance will never be enough. But with God, you have everything you need. Praise be to God!

Reflections of Praise by Kathy Schumacher

What Lasts Forever

Can you name something that lasts forever? A few things that come to mind for me are chewing gum under a school desk, grudges, a Barbie doll’s haircut, an unflattering picture, the cycle of annual tax bills, and finally, GLITTER. Heaven and earth could all pass away, but glitter will last forever.

I am reminded of a fellow pastor’s office couch after a wedding. The bridesmaids had glitter on their skirts and apparently spent a lot of time waiting on his couch. The preoccupied pastor sat down on Sunday morning to prepare to preach and didn’t notice the glitter. But the congregation did. As he processed into the sanctuary, his black robe was all sparkly across his rumpus. It was even more pronounced as he passed by the sunlight streaming though the side windows. It was glorious.

The poor man spent weeks wiping, lint rolling, vacuuming, etc. to no avail. That pastor has been gone for years, but I bet if you went into his office today, you would still find glitter embedded in the fibers.

Happily, there are other things that last which are more significant and even hopeful. We continue our study of Psalm 111 today. See if you can spot God’s promises of things that last longer than glitter:

Psalm 111 continued (Common English Bible)

God proclaimed his powerful deeds to his people
    and gave them what had belonged to other nations.
God’s handiwork is honesty and justice;
    all God’s rules are trustworthy—
        they are established always and forever:
        they are fulfilled with truth and right doing.

Powerful deeds.

Honesty

Justice.

Trustworthy rules. (Which are good only if you follow them.)

TRUTH.

Right doing.

God sent redemption for his people;
    God commanded that his covenant last forever.
        Holy and awesome is God’s name!
10 Fear of the Lord is where wisdom begins;
    sure knowledge is for all who keep God’s laws.
        God’s praise lasts forever!

This list has so many superlatives, it is breathtaking. Redemption! God’s covenant! God’s name! Knowledge and wisdom! (But only if you keep God’s laws.)

And when we put our lives under the authority of everything that will last forever, we add our voices to the chorus of praise, which also lasts forever.

Are you putting your hope in temporary things? Are you counting on earthly governments to bring justice? Are you investing in a human relationship that may not last? Are you distracted by all of the world’s “glitter” and ignoring the permanence of God’s covenant with you?

Kings and kingdoms will all pass away, but the name of the Lord lasts forever.

His Love Endures Forever by Susie Fitch-Slater

God ALONE

I hold my breath this morning as Inauguration Day is finally upon us. The horrific images of January 6th are seared in my mind and I am fearful of violence in my nation’s capital. The uncertainty of all of this overwhelms me, and I almost long for those days in 2020 when the most pressing concern was the pandemic. Who would have thought that something more frightening than the pandemic would come along? But here we are.

In God’s incredible prevenient grace, the assigned scripture for today is a timely reminder that God is our refuge. While we wait in silence to see how this day unfolds, the psalmist reminds us that we should be waiting for God ALONE. Our hope comes from him. Alone.

Psalm 62 (New Revised Standard Version)

5 For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.

Are you feeling shaken by the events of January 6th? Remember this:

6 He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.

7 On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.

8 Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.

It is normal for our trust in all things to be shaken right now. Politicians, the government, law enforcement, our future together…nothing seems certain. But we are reminded to trust in God AT ALL TIMES, not just on the easy days. Were there actually any easy days? I can’t remember.

9 Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath.

Verse 9 levels the playing field. Those of low estate and those of high estate don’t amount to much. There is no point in putting our trust in any one human, institution, or nation. God ALONE is our hope.

10 Put no confidence in extortion, and set no vain hopes on robbery; if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.

11 Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God,

12 and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord. For you repay to all according to their work.

No matter what happens today, tomorrow, or until Jesus returns, know this: God ALONE has the power. God ALONE offers his steadfast love. God is in control.

PRAY.

God Alone by Susie Fitch-Slater

Fearfully and Wonderfully

A few years ago I was driving past the Kitty Hawk Police Department as the community was gearing up for our annual OBX Marathon Weekend. I passed their information sign, which usually carries messages about changing your smoke detector batteries or remembering to buckle your seatbelt. I chucked when I saw the Marathon Weekend message: “You can run, but you can’t hide! Good luck from the Kitty Hawk Police Dept.” Haha!

We continue our journey into Psalm 139 today, delving farther into how much we are known by God. In the first half of this incredibly beautiful writing, the Psalmist assures us that God knows our going out, our coming in, our rising up, our sitting down, and that his hand is upon us in every moment of every day. We join with the Psalmist in his wonder and awe of God’s love for us. To be known by the creator of the universe is mind-blowing, indeed.

But how well does he know us? When did his knowing begin?

The second half of the psalm dives deeper. Here we learn that God himself was the one who formed us and knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. Ponder that for a second. This tells us that God has been a present in our lives from our very inception. He not only created the universe, he created us and all living things that move in the wombs of their mothers:

Psalm 139 (New Revised Standard Version)

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.

God’s work is wonderful. I think that is something important to remember when we encounter people (also formed in the wombs of their mothers) who do not look, vote, or think like us. God is with each one of us in our unborn state, and he loves and cherishes us all equally.

15  My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.

It is a profound thing to realize that God beheld you with his own eyes when you were unformed and made in secret. There are no secrets from God. Nothing can be hidden from his light or his love.

In your book were written
    all the days that were formed for me,
    when none of them as yet existed.

God has planned to love you and be with you all the days of your life, even before you took your first breath. And hallelujah, when you come to the end, he is still with you, and you are still with him.

17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
    I come to the end—I am still with you.

What does this say to you today about your importance to God? What is God teaching you about the sanctity of life and his activity in bringing you about? Can you find comfort in knowing that not only was he with you before your very beginning, but he will be with you when you come to the end?

This Psalm is sometimes labeled “The Inescapable God.” It is a reminder to us that we may run, but we can never hide. God is in every moment of our every moment. Thanks be to God!

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made by Nathan Dixon, Age 7

You Know Me

Recently I had the opportunity to spend time with my 14-month-old grandson. He is in the active/touching everything/put stuff in his mouth/try-to-climb-the-unclimbable stage of toddlerhood, so I purchased a large, sturdy play fence. We established one area as a kid-friendly zone, and put the 100 lb. Labrador Retriever on the other. It proved to be a good purchase, as we could sit in the kid zone and enjoy him playing without worrying for his safety. The dog wasn’t thrilled, but she got over it.

Today’s reading is the 139th Psalm. I have to tell you how excited I was that this is in this week’s lectionary, as it is one of my favorite psalms. It introduces the incredible notion that God knows us. Not just “knows” us as a people, or a nation, but really KNOWS us. Intimately. Personally. Closely. Familiarly.

Psalm 139 (New Revised Standard Version)

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.

How can the creator of the universe know us in such detail? How can the One who told the moon when to set and the stars where to spin know our very thoughts from far away? Why would he bother?

You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    O Lord, you know it completely.

It almost amuses me to think that God knows the word that is about to be on our tongues even before we say it. How it must dismay him when we actually say it! He knows us this well AND HE LOVES US ANYWAY.

You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.

Like a child inside a play fence, we are safely hemmed in by the One who made us. He desires to protect us, to surround us with grace, and to heal us with his mercy. Again I ask, why?

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is so high that I cannot attain it.

The psalmist speaks of the awe we feel in knowing how perfectly God knows us. He loves us so much that he is present in our every waking and sleeping moment.

What does it mean to you to know that God searches you and knows you to the very depth of your soul? Does it bring you comfort to know that you can never be alone? Is it a balm in your loneliness? Does it help you to realize that there is no sin you could ever commit that is beyond the reach of his understanding and forgiveness? Does it strengthen you to realize that with such a God, who is so close within you, nothing from the outside can harm you or separate you from his love?

Such knowledge is too wonderful. Such knowledge is so high, we cannot attain it. But we’ll take it anyway.

Rejoice, and be glad.

You Search Out My Path by Wende Pritchard

When You’re Worried

A gold star to everyone who can name the movie that this song comes from:

When you’re worried, and you can’t sleep,

just count your blessings instead of sheep

And you’ll fall asleep, counting your blessings!

If you said “White Christmas” (which not only refers to the snow, but the casting) you get a star.

This song is sung by Bing Crosby to Rosemary Clooney on a beautiful set created to look like a Vermont ski lodge. Rosemary’s character can’t fall asleep, so she goes in search of a snack. I like this girl. She meets Bing in the dining room, who offers her cold buttermilk, liverwurst sandwiches, and a song by a glowing fire pit. As much as I like snacks, I would have settled for just the song.

Covid fatigue has rendered a lot of us sleepless. And when we do fall asleep, many of us find ourselves awake again in a few hours. What is the best remedy, besides a snack? I mean if we give into that, COVID 19 will end up referring to how many pounds we have gained in this pandemic.

The answer is obvious…count your blessings.

Once upon a time there was a guy named Ethan the Ezrahite who wrote a maskil. A maskil, of course, is a technical term to designate the manner of composition or performance of a particular song. So this psalm was intended to be sung, perhaps around a fire for people who couldn’t fall asleep. In keeping with our theme, perhaps we could add some scat singing to this.

Ethan begins by counting his blessings:

Psalm 89 (New Revised Standard Version)

A Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite.

I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever;
    with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
I declare that your steadfast love is established forever;
    your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.

When you’re worried and you can’t sleep, these are blessings that you can count on as well.

God’s steadfast love.

God’s faithfulness to all generations.

God’s grace is forever.

His heaven and his faithfulness are firm.

You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
    I have sworn to my servant David:
‘I will establish your descendants forever,
    and build your throne for all generations.’”

The reminder that God made a covenant with David is the biggest blessing. Through David’s lineage, Jesus was born. He came to bring light into our darkness, hope into our despair, and eternal life into our earthly misery. When he comes again to establish his throne, every knee will bow, and pain and suffering will be no more.

So tonight, if you can’t sleep, just count your blessings! God’s love will sustain us all.

Counting Blessings by Michelle Robertson

A Harvest of Joy

Many mornings when I sit down to write, I find myself wanting to post just the scripture without anything else. Scripture is always able to speak for itself. No intricate intro, no presentation of a personal thought to lead you into the passage, no Bible history to set the table…just the scripture without comment, so it can marinate in your heart.

Today is one of those days. Psalm 126 speaks of a harvest of JOY. It needs no packaging or special set-up. It is a song of ascents that will help your spirit ascend:

Psalm 126 (New Revised Standard Version)

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
    and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
    like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
    reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
    carrying their sheaves.

This is what I will sing when it’s all over. The pandemic, the poverty, the injustice, the oppression of people of color, the hatred, the fear and rejection of those who are “different,”the division…this is the song we will sing when those things have come to pass. We will come home with shouts of joy.

So let us begin to sing it today, in anticipation of all these things being accomplished. The Lord HAS done great things for us, and he is restoring us, even in this moment.

Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel!

With Shouts of Joy by Michelle Robertson

A Thrill of Hope

This is the time of pre-Christmas festivities when we all hunker down to watch our favorite Christmas movies. The weather is less favorable to outdoor activity, we are enjoying the beauty of our brightly decorated homes, and everyone longs for the nostalgia that these movies bring.

Whether you are an Elf/Grinch fan or lean toward the old black and white classics like Miracle on 34th Street, all of these movies have one thing in common…hope.

Hope for a better tomorrow.

Hope in humanity.

Hope in a future that is less complicated than the present.

Hope that we will get it right this year and turn our hearts toward the good things, the righteous things, the important things….the things that last.

Even the ubiquitous Hallmark Christmas movies echo these articulations of hope…albeit in the same story format. There is a girl (often played by a forgotten actress from the ‘90’s) who is recently widowed, separated, or divorced. Looking for a fresh start, she leaves the big city/corporate job and moves to a town with a name that sounds like the latest version of a Bath and Body Works lotion followed by the word Springs, Glen, Falls, or Woods. (“Welcome to Mistletoe Kiss Falls!”) There she meets an incredibly good-looking single man. Both of them are wearing sweaters. One of them hates Christmas. There is a business/community fair/school that has a crisis, and the girl and the guy come together to solve it, and eventually fall in love. (Don’t hate me! You know it’s true!)

We just can’t resist a good story about hope.

Psalm 85 is a psalm of hope, and it does not disappoint. It begins with a re-telling of God’s redeeming of Israel in the past, and points to the hope of salvation in the future.

Psalm 85 (New Revised Standard Version)

Lord, you were favorable to your land;
    you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of your people;
    you pardoned all their sin.

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
    for he will speak peace to his people,
    to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
    that his glory may dwell in our land.

Watch what the psalmist does next. The interactions between steadfast love and faithfulness, and righteousness and peace are portrayed as beautiful meetings between two love interests:

10 Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
    righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
11 Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
    and righteousness will look down from the sky.

Even Hallmark would approve of this plot line.

Then comes the hope:
12 The Lord will give what is good,
    and our land will yield its increase.
13 Righteousness will go before him,
    and will make a path for his steps.

Friends, the Lord WILL give what is good. He is giving it even as we speak. In the midst of a pandemic, hope arrives in the form of vaccines that will be available in no time. In the midst of a pandemic, we have learned the importance of family time and real connections. In the midst of a pandemic, we have learned to hope again.

When God’s people turn to him and follow his steps toward righteousness, hope reigns. What do you need to do today to correct your steps? Where are you wandering off God’s path? Where do you need hope?

Return to God in a spirit of faithfulness and he will meet you there with his steadfast love. Surely his salvation is at hand when you fear him…turn to him with all your heart.

Morning Hope by Anne Pokorny