Hearing the Groans of the Prisoners

Scripture Focus: Ezekiel 31.10-12, 18
10 “ ‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: Because the great cedar towered over the thick foliage, and because it was proud of its height, 11 I gave it into the hands of the ruler of the nations, for him to deal with according to its wickedness. I cast it aside, 12 and the most ruthless of foreign nations cut it down and left it.

18 “ ‘Which of the trees of Eden can be compared with you in splendor and majesty? Yet you, too, will be brought down with the trees of Eden to the earth below

Psalm 79.10-13
10 Why should the nations say, 
“Where is their God?” 
Before our eyes, make known among the nations 
that you avenge the outpoured blood of your servants. 
11 May the groans of the prisoners come before you; 
with your strong arm preserve those condemned to die. 
12 Pay back into the laps of our neighbors seven times 
the contempt they have hurled at you, Lord. 
13 Then we your people, the sheep of your pasture, 
will praise you forever; 
from generation to generation 
we will proclaim your praise.

Reflection: Hearing the Groans of the Prisoners
By John Tillman

The psalmist, living under Babylonian exile, begs God to hear the “groans of the prisoners.” This is more than a reference to the writer’s own groaning. The poet is referencing the groans which caused God to “come down” (Exodus 3.7-9) to aid his people when they were oppressed by Egypt.

There are examples in scripture of both physical and spiritual salvation but typically they are connected or blended together. Moses’ liberation of the Jews from Egypt is the most iconic example of physical salvation and is the archetype biblical writers look to as a metaphor for spiritual salvation.

The ultimate example of God “coming down” is the incarnation of Jesus. We may think of Christ’s first advent as primarily about spiritual salvation, however, Mary is inspired by the Holy Spirit to sing of oppressors being toppled and the lowly being comforted. (Luke 1.52-53

Physical salvation is always top of mind for the persecuted and God’s wrath only sounds harsh to those who have rarely suffered. But God has more than physical suffering in mind and more sufferers than just his people in his heart.

Our readings from Ezekiel reference Egypt more directly as next on the list in Ezekiel’s long list of prophecies, judgments, and laments for other nations. These passages demonstrate that God is concerned with, and has dominion over, all nations, expressing wonder at their successes and anger at the harm they bring to others.

Why does God address these other nations? Why does God lament their falls and attempt to teach other nations by the example of their punishment?

Ezekiel realizes, and so must we, that all humans are not only under God’s dominion but God’s affection. God will not only visit judgment on them for evil but visit them in compassion during their oppression. Time and time again, God condemns through the prophets the same things—greed, pride, abuse of power. 

He is not just “our” God. He hears the cries of all those oppressed by their rulers. He judges all rulers and leaders who conduct themselves with pride and irresponsibility.

God is hearing the groans of those who are prisoners. Are we?

Who is suffering that we have ignored? God hears them.
Who is crying out that we would silence? God hears them.

Pray this week, that we would hear the groans…not seeking to be consoled as to console. (Prayer of St. Francis)

*Music: Prayer of St. Francis — Sarah McLachlan

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Be seated on your lofty throne, O Most High; O Lord, judge the nations. — Psalm 7.8

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Ezekiel 31  (Listen – 3:31) 
Psalm 79 (Listen – 1:50)

Read more about Freedom for Prisoners
Sin is our crime, our addiction, and our prison. Yet Jesus comes to free us nonetheless.

Read more about From Slavery to Service—Worldwide Prayer
May we leave behind our slavery and enter his service becoming thankful workers for peace.

Discipline for the Anxious

Scripture Focus: Psalm 77.2-3
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands,
and I would not be comforted.
I remembered you, God, and I groaned;
I meditated, and my spirit grew faint.

From John: The world has gotten even more anxiety-inducing since we originally posted this in 2018. Many suicides of Christians and Christian ministers in the intervening years testify to this.

Christian meditation and prayer is still an important discipline to help us in distressing times but some problems you can’t pray away. Ask Paul. Ask Jesus. If you need the help of a counselor or doctor you are not being unfaithful. See the resources at the end of this post for help and more information. 

Reflection: Discipline for the Anxious
By John Tillman

We live in distressing times. If there are corners of our world not touched by division, aggression, worry, and angst, you probably can’t get email there.

Anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues are on the rise—especially among younger adults. National Survey of Children’s Health researchers found a 20 percent increase in diagnoses of anxiety among children ages 6 to 17, between 2007 and 2012. The American College Health Association found that anxiety, rather than depression, is the most common reason college students seek counseling services and that in 2016, 62 percent of undergraduates reported “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. (An increase from 50 percent in 2011.)

Studying this, science is discovering things that are not exactly new under the sun. A recent Harvard study found that church attendance paired with spiritual disciplines such as meditation and prayer have a beneficial effect on mental health. In a Forbes article, study author Ying Chen noted that being raised religiously, “can powerfully affect [children’s] health behaviors, mental health, and overall happiness and well-being.”

The psalmists would not express surprise at these findings. Though we think of our society as facing pressures unknown to humanity until now, we would be mistaken to think of ancient times as idyllic and calm.

David and the other psalmists certainly knew what it was like to live under threat, under financial pressure, under the constant weight of political instability and the wavering loyalty of an unpredictable government.

Amidst such pressures, they had a safe haven. Their help for the stresses of life was meditation and prayer.*

The psalmist writes of being “too troubled to speak,” yet he cries to God. He writes of insomnia, yet he rests in God. He writes of doubts and of feeling that God has rejected him, that his love has vanished, that he had forgotten to be merciful. Yet in the midst of doubts and fears, he remembers God’s faithfulness in the past. He meditates on these memories in the heated moment of stress.

Although the benefits of meditation can help in a crisis, meditation is not a quick fix. It is not a fast-acting antidote for the world’s venom, but an inoculation to be taken ahead of time.

When beginning (or returning to) meditative prayer, start small and short. Use the prayer provided at the end of this devotional (Psalm 119.147) as a start. Spend two to five minutes simply re-reading the prayer with an expectant heart, asking God to be with you.

*We are in no way implying that meditation should be pursued in lieu of proper medical treatment. If you are in need of counseling and professional services, please consider the following resources:
Mental Health Grace Alliance
Not A Day Promised Resource Page
Life Recovered (Resources for Ministers)
Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention
Suicide Prevention Resource Center

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Hearken to my voice, O Lord, when I call; have mercy on me and answer me.
You speak in my heart and say, “Seek my face.” Your face, Lord, will I seek.
Hide not your face from me, nor turn away your servant in displeasure. — Psalm 27.10-12

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Ezekiel 28  (Listen – 4:32)
Psalm 77 (Listen – 2:12)

Today’s Readings
Ezekiel 29  (Listen – 3:43) Psalm 78:1-39 (Listen – 7:12)
Ezekiel 30  (Listen – 4:07) Psalm 78:40-72 (Listen – 7:12)

Read more about The Practice of Meditation :: Running
One way of thinking of meditative prayer is exercise to expand your spiritual lung capacity, allowing you to breathe in God’s spirit more naturally at any time—including during a crisis.

Read more about The Practice of Meditation :: Tea
Allow the scripture to soak in your mind, repetitively dip it in your thoughts as you would a tea bag into warm water.

Battered with Love-Worldwide Prayer

Scripture Focus: Psalm 75.1-3
We praise you, God,
we praise you, for your Name is near;
people tell of your wonderful deeds.
You say, “I choose the appointed time;
it is I who judge with equity.
When the earth and all its people quake,
it is I who hold its pillars firm.

Reflection: Battered with Love—Worldwide Prayer
By John Tillman

Christ’s love is the power working within us, to change not only our lives, but to manifest his kingdom of love in our dark and loveless world. 

We first need to understand his great love for us before we can show that love to others. Sometimes his powerful love has to batter its way through our defenses and self-hatred to invade our hearts. Only when we allow these walls to fall can we fearlessly love our neighbors and our enemies as we are called to do.

Battered with Love 
A psalm acknowledging God’s intervention from the USA

Oh Lord
You battered me with love, you assaulted me with mercy,
You pierced me through with compassion
and turned my sorrows into peace;
you gave meaning to my calamities and
my heartbreaks you repaired with your presence.
And still I could not love like you loved,
nor could I see myself in the beauty you found
with your searching eye.
For I was shackled with depression,
and my hand was against my own neck,
my thoughts against my own heart.
But you would not let go until you saw
the dawning of my liberation.
Then you turned my eyes towards you
and you let me see the face of God,
the wondrous smile of the Son of the living God,
in the glory of Love.
And so I was changed, and I believed,
and I was never more the same.
And where there was darkness, you birthed light,
where there was wickedness you painted in the colors
of righteousness and peace.
And upon my brow, the forehead of my temple,
you carved a new name, one secret and holy,
known only to you, a gift to be revealed
in the fullness of time to your eager, watchful servant.

*Prayer from Hallowed be Your Name: A collection of prayers from around the world, Dr. Tony Cupit, Editor.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for His Presence
For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in him — Psalm 62.6

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Ezekiel 27  (Listen – 5:15)
Psalm 75-76 (Listen – 2:33)

Read more about In Praise of God’s Mercy :: Worldwide Prayer
How can it be that you condescend to love me, to save me, to lift me, to envelop me, to calm my fearful heart?

Read more about Praise from a Stump :: A Guided Prayer
We are a ground down, burning stump of a fruitless tree!
In ashes, we repent.

The Poisonous Merry-Go-Round of Mockery

Scripture Focus: Ezekiel 26.2-3
Son of man, because Tyre has said of Jerusalem, ‘Aha! The gate to the nations is broken, and its doors have swung open to me; now that she lies in ruins I will prosper,’ 3 therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against you, Tyre, and I will bring many nations against you, like the sea casting up its waves.

Psalm 74.18-19
18 Remember how the enemy has mocked you, LORD, 
how foolish people have reviled your name. 
19 Do not hand over the life of your dove to wild beasts; 
do not forget the lives of your afflicted people forever. 

Reflection: The Poisonous Merry-Go-Round of Mockery
By John Tillman

Mocking is not looked on favorably by God in scripture. 

While his punishment for the sins of Jerusalem was being carried out, God had harsh responses to nations surrounding Israel and Judah who would mock, cheer, celebrate, or participate in the destruction. Tyre is just one example. 

There are long lists of countries and kings falling under God’s judgement for mockery and scorn. God’s people, however, should not be among them. When Jerusalem is being mocked, Ezekiel is instructed to lament the fall of the mockers. Mockers will be brought to justice. We are instructed to lament.

Tyre was powerful, not because of its land mass but because of its economic influence. The economy of the Mediterranean ran on Tyrian ships. Tyre’s glee at the fall of Israel was due to the newly opened opportunities for profit.

Comedy and satire have a fitting role in entertainment and the arts, but it is the vitriol that passes for political rhetoric and news coverage that is the most profitable form of mockery today. Individuals, institutions, and industries are built upon the monetization of mockery.

When someone or something crashes and burns, jeers and mockery rise with the smoke. The more savage the headline, the better it will sell. They aren’t making beauty from ashes. (Isaiah 61.3) They are making money from it. 

Meanness makes the world go ‘round, mockery is a media moneymaker, and Christians have been hopping on this poisonous merry-go-round. As Tim Keller said recently, “The demonization and dehumanization of the other side must stop. When professing Christians do it, it is triply wrong.” We help monetize mockery with our retweets, likes, shares, and passing on the derisive and divisive rhetoric that we intake.

Every time we click and share, the scornful cash in. Scorn is on the menu as we scroll through tweets, headlines, and memes. Far too many of Christ’s people lap up the disdain which drips from the lips of politicians and reporters and then spew it back out like so much bile. Disciples sound like their teachers. Some Christians sound more like these heartless mockers than like their rabbi-in-name-only, Jesus.

Although God tells Ezekiel of Tyre’s fate, is it not for Ezekiel to gloat or celebrate. God instructs him to lament. (Ezekiel 27.1-2) God deals with mockers. We need not return fire.

Judgment will come for mockers. May God’s people not be among them.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Protect my life and deliver me; let me not be put to shame, for I have trusted in you.
Let integrity and uprightness preserve me, for my hope has been in you. — Psalm 25.19-20

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Ezekiel 26  (Listen – 3:45)
Psalm 74 (Listen – 2:34)

Read more about Responding to Political Violence
Our political rancor has reached the point of normalizing violence…Christians not excluded.

Read more about Abandoning Human Vengeance
We must be the first to break the chain of retaliatory and violent rhetoric.
We must abandon human vengeance before we can see divine justice.

Losing Cynicism in the Sanctuary

Scripture Focus: Psalm 73.1-3; 16-17
      1 Surely God is good to Israel, 
         to those who are pure in heart. 
      2 But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; 
         I had nearly lost my foothold. 
      3 For I envied the arrogant 
         when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. 

      16 When I tried to understand all this, 
         it troubled me deeply 
      17 till I entered the sanctuary of God; 
         then I understood their final destiny.

Reflection: Losing Cynicism in the Sanctuary
By John Tillman

Psalm 73 begins with its conclusion: Surely God is good to the pure in heart. But the psalmist goes through disillusionment and cynicism before getting there.

The psalmist is distressed by disparity, to the point of despair. The wicked grow rich, healthy, wealthy, and (at least in their own eyes) wise. He begins to think God uncaring and unjust, sinking in a spiral of cynicism. He describes this as a trap he almost “slips” and falls into.

But there is more than one trap. The psalmist says the arrogant rich are also “on slippery ground.” (Psalm 73.18-20) Wealth that works like a charm in this life is, for many, a curse and a trap. (Proverbs 17.8)

We can be snared by both traps. Wealthy as we are, we may think that other wealthier ones are guilty of greed as we hoard our own resources. Poor as we are, we can be in denial of the blessings that God has given us and guilty of the same selfishness as the wealthy. All of us can be guilty of taking rest, ease, and luxury at the expense of others. How can we escape these traps of hubris, greed, jealousy, and despair? 

The psalmist loses cynicism in the sanctuary of the Lord. It is there he sees that all humanity’s unpaid debts to each other are ringing up interest in the Lord’s accounts and we will not avoid his justice. 

We mistake wealth in this world that will pass away as being more desirable than wealth in God’s kingdom that will not pass away. Tricks of perspective can make large things seem small and small things seem large. 

For the rich and the poor, worship of God is the doorway through which we see with a different perspective. This is why James speaks so harshly about treating the rich and poor equitably in God’s house. (James 2.1-13) This is why Jesus was zealous for God’s house, expelling the money changers. (John 2.13-17; Mark 11.15-17; Matthew 21.12-14)

God intends our worship to reflect heaven, not earth.

It will be in worship that we gain a better perspective to help us see things rightly. 
May the Holy Spirit confront us about equity and justice. 
May we question our justice, not God’s. Are we being prudent or greedy? Are we being responsible or cruel?

May moments of worship overwhelm our cynicism and reveal a perspective of eternity.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Love the Lord, all you who worship him; the Lord protects the faithful, but repays to the full those who act haughtily. — Psalm 31.23

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle
Today’s Readings
Ezekiel 25  (Listen – 2:50)
Psalm 73 (Listen – 2:56)

Read more about Greed and Envy
The trap the psalmist escapes is to mistake stored up justice for absence of justice.

Read more about In Denial about Greed and Power
We still don’t fully admit or understand the destructive nature of the sins of greed and power.

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