Litany of Grace

Though our world is always changing, one thing’s for sure.

The first time my wife, Miska, and I went on an extended trip without our kids, we enjoyed five days in Cancun, Mexico, while grandparents kept the boys. The first night we were back, our preschooler commenced a full meltdown. Wyatt had stored his anxieties during our absence and was now prepared to unleash those pent-up emotions. He was wild and awake, mostly screaming from midnight until dawn. It was lovely.

At 3 a.m., exhausted and demoralized, we shut Wyatt’s bedroom door, attempting to quell his temper tantrum or, at the least, to muffle the fracas from his baby brother, the only person in the house still asleep. Wyatt did not think well of our new strategy. He attacked his barricade with Legos, scraping, clawing, and pounding. When we returned, we found a tear-streaked face and large gashes cut into the door’s white panels.

Eventually, we figured out that Wyatt feared we would leave again, and that next time we would not return. Each evening at bedtime, his fears ratcheted up. So for the next month, I practiced a nightly routine: I would lie on the floor just outside Wyatt’s bedroom, within eyesight, and would stay on the carpet until he drifted to sleep. My three-year-old son needed visual reminders that his mom and dad were present and that we would never abandon him. After a week or two, I moved a few steps down the stairs, out of sight but still close enough so Wyatt knew I was near. “Are you there, Dad?” my boy asked repeatedly. “I’m here,” I answered. “I’ll be here as long as you need me.”

All of us need to hear again and again that God is here and He is not going anywhere—that His love is resilient and unwavering.

All of us have anxieties about our lives, and most of us, caught in some dark moment, will wonder if God, our true Father, has abandoned us or if His love for us has run out. On these occasions, we need reminders of God’s active, present love toward us and with us. When we encounter places of isolation or hardship, we need to be reminded that this distressing moment, terrifying as it is, does not own the story. When a hard word arrives from a doctor or a piercing betrayal arrives from one we considered a friend, we must reconnect with the broader, deeper truth that God’s goodness and unflinching loyalty has not eased or relented. His faithful love is tenaciously for us.

Israel had such reminders of tenacious divine love woven into their prayers. The psalms were prayers that God’s people often sung responsively: the leader would sing one line, and the people would answer by singing another. The result was a swell of prayer, a symphony of grace. Many practice this today, in the form of a litany, where all of God’s people pray together and sing together and tell God’s story together.

Among these prayer-litanies Scripture passes to us, Psalm 136 is perhaps the most striking. It reminds Israel of God’s unquenchable kindness, goodness, and power, not only by describing His character but also by narrating a history. The text traces how God has been faithfully present with His people across the years and amid places of both desolation and triumph. As with most of the psalms, we are unsure of the precise setting, but Psalm 136 could easily have emerged from any number of Israel’s difficult epochs. The nation faced a continual barrage of persecution and sorrow, yet God repeatedly asserted that He never had abandoned His people and never would. It is much like the experience with our fearful son Wyatt: all of us need to hear again and again that God is here and He is not going anywhere—that His love is resilient and unwavering.

“Give thanks to the Lord,” the psalm begins, “for he is good” (ESV). This simple assertion, that God’s very being is absolute good, sits as the bedrock fact upon which our life rests. God does not merely do good, nor does He simply demand good from others; rather, He is good. No deed or motivation originates with Him that does not exist as an expression of generous goodness. If our vision of the Lord conflicts with this fact, then we need to immerse ourselves anew in the psalm’s clear-eyed insistence: God is good. Once we sink into this deep truth that God’s very being, His every action and impulse are profoundly good, then our instinctive response will be gratitude, love, and joy.

The best news is that God’s goodness does not have an expiration date. Divine love does not reach some moment where we discover that it has been finally exhausted. While we are fickle and faithless, God is, in the language of the psalm, steadfast. To be steadfast is to be unflinching, consistent, always pressing toward the ones on whom the eyes of love have been set. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann refers to this fact of God’s steadfast character as our assurance that we live in “a world grounded by God’s reliable loyalty.” In a world where everything seems in flux, God—and His holy love—is the one sure, concrete fact.

The people’s reply to God’s unrelenting goodness (as well as to each bit of their history recounted for them by the psalm) was to repeatedly exclaim, “For His steadfast love endures forever.” More than 20 times, in fact, the people answer with that line. It is the only thing the people utter throughout the entire psalm. It’s as if this one truth is so expansive, so hopeful and essential, that they simply have nothing else to say.

When the people are reminded that their God is above all others, they respond: God’s steadfast love endures forever. When the Master of the Universe’s creative energy is described, how He created sun and earth and waters, the people answer: God’s steadfast love endures forever. When the leader recounts the Lord’s ferocious power evidenced in freeing Israel from mighty Pharaoh, the people reply: God’s steadfast love endures forever. When the prayer asserts anew how God has, even in their most exigent circumstances, always fed His people and never forgotten His people, they respond again: God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Whatever ruin haunts us, whatever calamity strikes at our life, our Father stands with us and over us. The promise is not that we will never suffer but that our Savior carries us even in our suffering. When we encounter struggle and strife, we recognize how even there, God’s steadfast love finds us. When we enjoy beauty and life, we discover how the Father’s steadfast love has brought us to these moments.

A good practice might be to carve out space to craft our own psalm, our own prayer. We could do this by writing down the major events or seasons of our life, in single sentences as the psalmist did. We could write our joys as well as our sorrows, affirming how God’s steadfast love remains the one stable truth through it all. Your prayer could go something like this:

My dad fought for his marriage with mom,
God’s steadfast love endures forever.

My brother returned home from Iraq,
God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Even though the bankruptcy rocked me to my core,
God’s steadfast love endures forever.

I have not been alone, even as I’ve faced this disease,
God’s steadfast love endures forever.

I’ve held my son and my daughter in my arms,
God’s steadfast love endures forever.

With such an exercise, we can remember again that our entire life exists as a litany of grace. We can remember that God is with us, and His love will never abandon us. God’s love endures.

Related Topics:  Faith

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