God is Our Refuge

by Bruce Okkema

In you, O LORD, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame. Rescue me and deliver me in your righteousness; turn your ear to me and save me. Be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go; give the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress. Psalm 71:1-3

MasadaMasada stands as a huge outcropping of rock jutting 1,440 feet above the desert floor on the western shore of the Dead Sea. It is located fourteen miles north of the southern end of the sea and eleven miles south of En-gedi. Masada remains today one of the Jewish people’s greatest symbols, and except for Jerusalem, it is the most popular destination of people visiting Israel.

Its history as a desert fortress goes back far into the past. David moved throughout this region of the southern Judean desert as he was hiding from Saul, and quite likely spent time on this mountain. Although Masada is not mentioned by name in the Bible, we see glimpses of it in several places where God is called a “rock of refuge,” or “my fortress.” Metzudah means “refuge” or “fortress” in Hebrew. (In addition to our text above, see also 1 Sam 22:4-5, 23:14, 24:22, and Psalms 18:2, 31, and 144:2.)

The remains that we we see today are from the time of Herod, who not only increased the fortifications, but built magnificent garden palaces on either end of the mountain. It almost never rains here, yet Herod built an elaborate water system to divert water that originated in the Judean mountains into cisterns at Masada. Servants carried water from there to upper reservoirs servicing the palaces, to an Olympic size swimming pool!

The reason Masada is one of the Jewish people’s greatest symbols is for what occurred there during the Jewish revolt against Rome during 66 – 72AD. A group of Zealots took Masada and it became a place of refuge for other Jews fleeing the Roman terrorism. For three years they were able to fend off the Romans and worship the Living God while enduring the rigors of desert life. Finally, faced with certain capture and torture, the group of 960 chose to take their own lives, rather than become slaves of Rome. “The valor of the Jewish zealots residing on Masada during the Roman siege is celebrated as the supreme example of self-sacrifice for the preservation of the nation of Israel. Today, when the recruits of the Israel Armored Corps take their oath of allegiance, they do so on Masada to remind each generation of the price their forefathers paid for their nation. They cry: “Masada shall not fall again!” (1)

Masada

A view of the snake path from the top of Masada

To climb the arduous snake path in the 120° sun, to imagine looking down helplessly from above on your fellow countrymen enslaved to build a siege ramp against you, to stand at the precipice thinking across history about all the many who have served the Lord at the cost of their lives is to wonder if I will have the courage to stand that test for my Lord one day.

Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. Psalm 2:10-12.


Additional sources for this article:
(1) http://www.ancientsandals.com/overviews/masada.htm
http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/masada.html
Josephus Flavius, Jewish Wars, Chapter 8 http://www.templebuilders.com

Praying with Intention

by Lois Tverberg

“Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? And who may stand in His holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart. ” Psalm 24:3

The prayers that Jesus and Paul prayed were a combination of spontaneous petitions and traditional prayers that were prayed at certain times of day. One of them that is still prayed today is called the “Amidah” or “Eighteen Benedictions.” (1) It is quite lengthy, and consists of prayers for all the various concerns of the Jewish people. For thousands years since Jesus lived, these petitions have stayed nearly the same.

In contemporary Protestant culture, we tend to disdain rote prayer, preferring the intimacy of spontaneous prayer and feeling that a repeated prayer is empty and hollow. We wonder how a person could avoid just “going through the motions.” The answer is a concept that the rabbis developed known as “Kavanah.” The word means “direction,” “intention,” or “devotion,” and the idea behind praying with kavanah is that you set the direction of your thinking toward God, and toward praying the memorized prayer “with all your heart.”

A person who has kavanah focuses his entire being on prayer, and is undistracted by the chaos around him. He may have said the same prayer a thousand times, but his mind is sunk so deeply into the words that he is experiencing new insights and feelings from them today that he has never experienced before.

In synagogues, above the ark that holds the Torah scrolls, there is often a plaque that says, “Know before whom you stand.” That is just what it means to have kavanah in prayer – to have a sense of standing in the presence of God, to know that you are addressing the sovereign Lord of the universe.

When I used to pray after crawling in bed, I would often fall asleep before finishing my prayer. After thinking about the lack of reverence this has for God, I now make myself kneel or stay awake in some way, or pray at a time of day when I’m more awake. He deserves our best, not our least efforts in prayer.

Kavanah can go beyond prayer as well – our lives should also show it too. We should live each hour and day with devotion and intention, being aware of God’s presence all around us. When we do this, our lives will truly be the reflection of Christ, whose every desire was to please and honor God in every way.


1The Amidah: A New Translation, by David Bivin, is available here.

Are We Listening for God?

by Bruce Okkema

So the LORD called Samuel again for the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli discerned that the LORD was calling the boy. And Eli said to Samuel, “Go lie down, and it shall be if He calls you, that you shall say, `Speak, LORD, for Your servant is listening.'” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Then the LORD came and stood and called as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for Your servant is listening.” I Samuel 3:8-10

It is often difficult to know when God is speaking to us. Does He speak to us audibly? Does He speak to us through visions? Does He speak to us through our hearts and feelings? Does He speak to us through scripture? Does He speak to us through other people? Yes. Of course, if we are to hear anyone speak, we have to listen, which also means we have to stop talking occasionally.

Imagine a “conversation” in which you would go to someone and say, “Hi. Here’s how I am feeling. I want this and this and this. I don’t know what to do about this. Please help me with this, this, and that. Thank you for this. Talk to you later.” After this great conversation, you turn around, walk away, and go about your business. Would it be safe to expect that most people would be either offended or hurt by that? Does this sound too close to the way we pray sometimes?

Our private prayers and quiet times with the Lord are to be communion with Him — conversations with Him. By prayer and through the study of His Word we come to know Him. Just like your earthly father wants you to tell him how much you love him, what you are thinking about, what you are worried about, and what you need, he wants to tell you how much he loves you, and what he thinks you should do, and how he wants to help you. I think this is what God wants our conversations with Him to be like.

He is not usually going to speak to us like He did to Samuel, but if you will take the posture of honestly listening to the Lord, and if you are willing to take the time to search out His will, at some point he will make it clear to you. In the meantime keep praying and keep listening!

Praying the Psalms

by Mary Okkema

Bless the LORD, O my soul, And all that is within me, bless His holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits; Psalms 103:1-2

When life is a challenge and we don’t know how to pray we can turn to the Psalms for the words that fail us. You can start by reminding yourself who God is and think about His wonderful attributes.

Drink in these words from Psalms 103:

In the opening verses, we are reminded of the many ways we benefit by His presence everyday: “Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits”.

What is it that you need today? Are you feeling like you need forgiveness before you start the day? … “who forgives all your sins” … or maybe you are encountering an illness because of unconfessed sin, “and heals all your diseases.” (“When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.” Psalms 32:3)

Perhaps you have been dealing with depression, “who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion,” Do you need some encouragement? Verse 5 says, “who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

Having compassion for others is a challenge we often face as well. We can learn from the example in verse 13:”As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him”.

The words of verse 19 remind us who is in charge, “The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.”

So even when we don’t know how to pray, we find that by turning to the Psalms, we can be guided, encouraged, and blessed by the words of those who have gone before us. Can we help but join with them and all creation by saying:

Praise the LORD, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. Praise the LORD, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will. Praise the LORD, all his works everywhere in his dominion. Praise the LORD, O my soul.

Indeed, how great is His love! “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him!” Blessed be the Name of the Lord!

Thy Kingdom Come

by Lois Tverberg

Pray, then, in this way: “Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” Matthew 6:9-10

Even though Jesus often talks about the kingdom, many of us struggle to understand what Jesus meant by “thy kingdom come.” We read two different phrases in the gospels – “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God.” In Matthew, “kingdom of heaven” is used, while in Mark and Luke, “kingdom of God” is used. This is because Jews show respect for God by not pronouncing his name. Matthew is preserving the culturally-correct quote “kingdom of heaven” while Mark and Luke are explaining to Gentile audiences that “heaven” is a reference to God.

The primary understanding of the kingdom of heaven was God’s reign over the lives of people who enthrone him as king. The rabbis knew that most of the world did not know God, but the scriptures said that one day, “The LORD will be king over all the earth; in that day the LORD will be the only one, and His name the only one.” (Zechariah 14:9)

The question of Jesus’ time was when and how God would establish this kingdom. It was thought that when the Messiah came, the Kingdom of God would arrive all at once with great glory. But Jesus disagrees:

Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” Luke 17:20

Jesus meant that a person is brought into the kingdom of God when a person repents and decides to accept God as his King, and it is something that happens in a person’s heart, not a political movement or visible display of God’s power.

So what did Jesus mean by the phrase “your kingdom come”? He is talking about God’s reign over our lives, not about a future display of God’s power. He uses it in parallel with the next line in the text. The two phrases “your kingdom come” and “your will be done on earth” are synonymous. These phrases both mean, “May all nations of the earth enthrone you as king! May everyone on earth know you and do your will!”

Our Father

by Lois Tverberg

“This, then, is how you should pray: `Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…” Matthew 6:9

Jesus begins to teach his disciples how to pray by addressing God as “Our Father.” He was not unique in this respect – other Jewish prayers of the day began with, “Our Father, Our King…” which is “Avinu, Malkenu….” This address encompasses both God’s love and his sovereignty, like Jesus’ prayer does, describing both God’s fatherly love, but also his holiness. The plural pronoun “our” is used out of respect for God, to not be too intimate.

The thing that is unique about Jesus is not how he told his disciples to address God, but how he addressed God himself, as “My Father.” No one else in all the Bible refers to God as “My Father.” There is an interesting reason for this. The Jews had a tradition about the Messiah that was related to the key Messianic promise that God gave to King David:

The LORD declares to you that the LORD himself will establish a house for you: When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. (2 Samuel 7:11-14)

From this prophecy, they understood that when the Messiah came, he would have a relationship with God so close that when he prayed, he would refer to God as “My Father.”

This gives us a fascinating insight into an early story of Jesus’ life. When Jesus was twelve and his parents found him in the temple, Jesus said, “Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49) This was the first time that Jesus made a messianic reference to himself, showing that he understood who he was since childhood.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he refers to God as “my father,” and every time he used those words, his listeners would have heard it as a bold claim to be the One who God had promised would come.

Even This is For the Good

by Lois Tverberg

“I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth. ” Psalms 34:1

One of the ways the rabbis interpreted the phrase “love the Lord your God with all of your heart” was to point out that since we have both joy and sadness in our heart, we need to love God both when we are happy and when we are sad. We are to bless the Lord at all times, as the psalmist says we should do today. As Paul points out, we should “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

The rabbis had some wonderfully wise prayers in order to bless the Lord for both the highs and lows in life. When they went through a long, difficult time and finally had relief, or celebrated some happy event for which they waited, they said, “Blessed is He who has allowed us to live, and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this day!”

When a son returned home from war, or when a baby was born, or some other wonderful thing, they stopped to praise God for bringing them to that point in their lives. Even today this prayer is used, and is a favorite for many.

Even in times of grief, when someone died or they heard tragic news, they blessed God. They said “Blessed is he who is the true judge.” It was a reminder that God was still good, even when they heard about tragic events, and that he will ultimately bring justice where justice doesn’t seem to be present. It also reminded them of God’s sovereignty, and his control over all things.

They have an interesting, wise, but difficult saying that is often said on hearing tragic news. Gam zo le tovah – Even this is for the good. The first time I heard this saying was from a dear friend in Israel when he had found out that his wife had breast cancer. It is never appropriate as an empty platitude, but from the lips of a person who is suffering, it is a statement of great faith in God — that even in the worst times, we know that a loving God intends it for good.

Blessing or Thanks?

by Lois Tverberg

“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits!” Psalm 103:1-2

From Jesus’ day until the present, the Jewish people have had a tradition of saying numerous short prayers throughout the day called “blessings.” The idea is not to bless objects and people, in the sense of conferring holiness on them, but to bless God, with the understanding that we are focusing on him as the source of all blessing. The word for bless, “barak” also means to kneel, suggesting that when we bless God, we mentally bow on our knees to worship him. Even Jesus prayed these prayers of blessing, following the customs of his day.

In the most ordinary things they found ways of praising God. When the first flowers were seen on the trees in the spring, they said, “Blessed is he who did not omit anything from the world, and created within it good creations and good trees for people to enjoy!” When they heard thunder they also blessed God by saying, “Blessed is he whose strength and power fill the world!” This pervasive act of prayer kept God’s presence and love continually on their minds.

A blessing is very close to a prayer of thanks, but it actually is not, and in some ways it is better. For instance, when we see a rainbow, we can praise and bless the Lord for his creativity, and the beauty he designs into creation. But to thank him for it implies that God gave it to us as a gift, or that our approval is required. Thankfulness requires God to have personally done something for us, but blessing is simply a prayer that glorifies him and reminds us of his supremacy in all things.

In my own experience, I have found that the practice of these prayers of blessing changes a person’s entire inner attitude. Continually praising God for his good gifts reminds us that the world is saturated with God’s presence and that we are under his constant care.

In All Circumstances

by Lois Tverberg

“Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
1 Thessalonians 5:18

In difficult times it is hard to see what God is doing, and we worry that he has lost control of the world or doesn’t care about us. The rabbis had an interesting, wise, but difficult saying that is often said on hearing tragic news. Gam zo le tovah – Even this is for the good. The first time I heard it was from a dear friend in Israel when he had found out that his wife had breast cancer. It is never appropriate as an unsympathetic platitude, but from the lips of a person who is suffering, it is a statement of great faith in God – that even in the worst times, we know that a loving God intends it for good.

Paul said that we should give thanks in all circumstances. Other rabbis said something similar, that we are to “love the Lord your God with all of your heart,” and sometimes our hearts are full of joy, but sometimes full of sadness, so to love him with all of our heart, we need to love him both in happiness and sadness. We are to bless the Lord at all times, as in Psalm 34:1: “I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth.”

As part of this, there is a traditional Jewish prayer for times of grief, when someone dies or when tragic news is heard. It is, “Blessed is He who is the true judge.” It is a reminder that God is still good, even in tragedy, and that he will ultimately bring justice where justice doesn’t seem to be present. It also reminds them of God’s sovereignty, and his control over all things.

Child CryingWe as Christians have a special reason to know that God is not unconcerned about our difficulties. It is that we know he has walked on earth as we have, and he has suffered as we do. Our difficulties have most likely come from misfortune or mistakes, or something else out of our control. But, his pain was entirely of his own choosing. He willingly took on great hardship and suffering for us, out of the great depths of his love.


Photo: franciso_osorio

The Direction of Your Heart

by Lois Tverberg

“Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? And who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart.” Psalm 24:3

The prayers that Jesus, Paul, and the Jewish people of their day prayed were
a combination of spontaneous petitions and traditional prayers that were
prayed at certain times of day. For thousands of years these petitions
have remained nearly the same. In contemporary Protestant culture,
we tend to disdain rote prayer, preferring the intimacy of spontaneous
prayer and feeling that a repeated prayer is empty and hollow. We
wonder how a person could avoid just “going through the motions.”

The answer is a concept that the rabbis developed known as kavanah. The word means direction, intention, or devotion, and the idea behind praying with kavanah is that you set the direction of your thinking toward God, and toward pray the memorized prayer “with all your heart.” A person who has kavanah focuses his entire being on prayer, and is not distracted by the chaos around him. He may have said the same prayer a thousand times, but his mind is immersed so deeply into the words that he is experiencing new insights and feelings from them each time that he has never experienced before.

In synagogues, above the ark that holds the Torah scrolls, there is often a plaque that says, “Know Before Whom You Stand.” That is exactly what it means to have kavanah in prayer – to have a sense of standing in the presence of God, to know that you are addressing the sovereign Lord of the universe. Prayer is so simple and it is easy to do it half-heartedly. But God deserves our best, not our least efforts in prayer.

Kavanah can go beyond prayer as well – our lives should also show it too. We should live each hour and every day with devotion and intention, fully aware of God’s presence all around us. When we do this, our lives will truly be the reflection of Christ, whose every desire was to please and honor God with his whole being.