Pray Your Tears

About ten years ago I got a phone call that no one ever wants to get. My wife called me to tell me that my nephew and youngest son Caleb’s best friend, Josh Bixler, had put a hand gun to his head and pulled the trigger at the age of fourteen.

I remember standing up and pushing my face into the corner of the room and screaming out to God. If someone had heard my guttural scream, they would have been certain that I had lost my faith. I had held this boy in my arms and dedicated him on Mother’s Day. I had gone to his t-ball games. I had bought him Christmas presents. I had taken him backpacking several times with Caleb.

That evening, when we had to tell Caleb about the death of Josh, was one of the worst days of my life. My wife and two oldest sons and daughter-in-law stood in our living room in a circle, held hands and prayed while fifteen-year-old Caleb was up in his room playing video games. I remember saying, “In five minutes Caleb will hear news that will send shockwaves into his soul for the rest of his life. He’s upstairs as a child, after we tell him about Josh, he will go back up those same stairs—not a child.”

The family asked me to eulogize Josh. I remember flying to Denver and feeling as if I were flying into a war zone. As I drove to Josh’s house, dismembered memories lay like body parts at every street corner along the way.

I wrote as well as I could the eulogy that I wanted to share at the church in front of about 900 people, many of whom were students at Columbine High School. Yes, that Columbine High School that had suffered so much horror seven years earlier.

What struck me was that while Josh’s parents wanted to celebrate his life (and rightfully so), but the music was a little too upbeat and cherry. The mood was a little too festive. People were clapping and smiling. The happier everyone got, the madder I became. My wife, as she does more than I would care to admit, reached over and patted me on my knee and said, “Easy does it, big guy. Easy does it.”

The pastor called on me to come to the podium and share my eulogy. And the first thing I said was,

“This is not right. We, none of us, should be here. You students should be playing soccer or studying for tests. You teachers should be grading papers. Caleb should be watching a Star Wars movie with Josh. His parents should be at work. I should be at home writing a sermon. This is not what God wanted any of us to be doing today…”

Well, that sucked the life out of the room.

We live in a culture that is clueless about how to grieve and cry out to God. We live in a celebratory culture that wants everything to be rainbows, daisies, and puppy breath.
Author Tara Owens put it wisely when she said,

Our inability to feel and articulate the deep sorrow of our life causes us to only experience truncated joy. There is an equilibrium between the depth of sorrow experienced and expressed and the abiding joy that God wants us to know in our lives.

We have lost our ability to cry out to God because we refuse to allow ourselves to feel deeply our hurt, doubts, pain and suffering. In short, we have lost the skill of lamenting.
It might surprise you that prayers of lament show up quite a bit in the Bible. And these are anything but pious, proper, or polite.

For example, in Psalm 13 we read:

How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?

Or we read in Psalm 44…

Awake! Why do You sleep, O Lord?
Arise! Do not cast us off forever.

Or in Psalm 39 the writer wants God to go away…

Remove Your gaze from me, that I may regain strength,
Before I go away and am no more.”

The question that a thinking person might ask is simply this, “What are these prayers doing in the Bible? And how do you and I make sense of them?”

I think that these dark prayers of lament, that turn up more frequently than we might expect in this old prayer book, illumine for us a profound paradox about Christian praying. Praying your doubts, your tears, your anger, and your desperation is not a sign of a LACK of faith; it is an ACT of faith. Christian prayer takes seriously that life for all of us, sooner or later, can be hazardous to our health.

These words give us a vocabulary to yell for help to the living God when we are in the middle of our own troubles, vulnerabilities, anger, and confusion. The psalms of lament give us words to speak to God smack in the middle of our messy lives.

Why does an infant cry? It cries when it is hungry or when it has soiled itself. Those cries can be loud and incessant. The cries in the middle of the night are for help with some kind of discomfort. It is altogether appropriate for that infant to cry out under those conditions.

What we learn from the ancient prayer book is that when we have “soiled” our lives and are sitting in our own filth, we can cry out to the living God and know that he hears us and will come to us. The fact that these laments are recorded in the book that we love, tells us that it is altogether appropriate for us to cry out under all conditions.

What does this mean for us practically: We can give God our tears.

In the Russian novel, Brothers Karamazov, there are a number of scenes in which Ivan, one of the brothers, shakes his fists at the heavens. Ivan is deeply troubled by the suffering of the world and in particularly of children. He protests over and over again if there is a God how could there be such horrific suffering in the world.

If you read the novel it is telling that Dostoevsky, who is a Christian, offers no rhetorical answer to any of Ivan’s question. The counterpoint in the story is supplied by various character’s example of love and faithfulness amid suffering.

I mention this because in the tapestry of Holy Scripture, the very same thing happens. Like it or not, the Bible offers to us less than we want on the one hand, but more than we could ask for on the other in response to all of our protests and questions over life’s hardships and the world’s horrors.

As products of the age of enlightenment we are prone to want answers. We want explanations. We are looking for cause and effect. So, when there is evil, horror, suffering that defies our ability to understand and we start looking to God for answers, we want him to give us solutions and explanations that makes sense to us.

But when you turn to the Bible you don’t find explanations for anything and everything that God could say as to why there is so much suffering in the world. But what the Bible does is tell us a story. A long epic story about what God has done to rescue us and the cosmos. He does it by entering into it and coming near to us to taste our suffering and our hardship.

The scriptures don’t settle for what God could say; they narrate for us what God does.
He does not snap his divine fingers and make it all go away; He dares to come near us in our plight. Jesus willingly gives himself to be “eaten up” in our suffering and death.
The world’s deep suffering closes in on Jesus; so that God can rescue us from the inside; from all of the dark and the wrong that swallows us up. In that way, we can be sure that, though it feels like our feet often slip in life and that we are in up to our necks, we are never in up to our necks—alone.

When your throat is dry from crying out to the heavens, and your eyes are swollen from weeping and looking around for where God might be hiding—here’s where to look…

…The Cross

When you wonder to yourself, “Where is God in my heartache?” Lift up your head and look at the cross. Because the cross of Jesus is where the God of the universe has stepped in to the world, tasted the horror of suffering, dealt with the injustice of unpunished wrongs, and has promised that He will bring us through it all.

There was an Andre Crouch song that was popular when I was a kid that said:

I’ve been to lots of places,
I’ve seen a lot of faces,
there’s been times I felt so all alone.
But in my lonely hours,
yes, those precious lonely hours,
Jesus lets me know that I was His own!
Through it all,
through it all,
I’ve learned to trust in Jesus,
I’ve learned to trust in God

When we cry out to God in lament, God does not respond with quick fixes and pat answers. He responds by giving us himself.

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These Boots are Made for Preaching

“Come, I will show you the bride, the Lamb’s wife.” Revelation 21:9

Ellsworth looked down at my feet after hearing me preach for the first time and said, “A man who isn’t afraid to wear cowboy boots in the pulpit is a man I can trust.” I glanced at my feet and then to his. His boots were black. He was a deacon in my first pastorate. He taught me about being a pastor and it had nothing to do with footwear.

I remember sitting with him and drinking coffee in silence. I counted the tick of the clock on the wall, thirty metrical ticks between sentences. Ellsworth slurped his Folgers and stared out the window. We never talked much, but this is where I learned the most important lesson in being a pastor. He never complimented a sermon, he never challenged my theology, he never asked me for council and he never encouraged me. The closest he ever came was after church one Sunday he said, “Preacher, God rarely gets in a hurry.”

After three and a half years I moved to a different state and changed shoes.

Aside from the obvious list that you might learn in seminary like: holding confidences, faithful to the creeds, be prepared to preach, stay away from the finances, don’t exaggerate too much in sermons, keep your lust at a disguisable level—there is another way to measure trust. It is deeper. It goes unseen but not unknown.

Congregants can smell a restless pastor like polar bears smell seal pups. They may not be able to articulate the feeling they get from the aroma of a pastor on the move, but they know not to put their full weight on him. When he aches for a larger platform, a bigger name, a more dynamic city, a different climate, or even a ‘do-over’ he fails in his most holy sacrament: being present.

Something happens between the soul of a congregation and the soul of a pastor that is not unlike the connection between a husband and wife at the most intimate level. A husband who is easily distracted by a pretty girl from being present with his wife is a husband not worthy of trust, whether that girl is physically present or tucked away under the mattress in his mind.

My wife, Lynette, comes alive when I serve her. And she can tell when I am serving her to get something from her and when I serve her because I adore her. What’s more, when I power up on her she may submit, but a little of her soul dies inside and she is less human. Her soul diminishes.

I imagine a frown crease the brow of my Lord when he sees how I treat my bride, and sadly, how I treat his.

When a pastor rides his church to accomplish his goals under the guise of advancing the Kingdom, something of the bride of Christ shrinks and shrivels even while she is growing as an organization. She is becoming less like Jesus and more like the pastor. But when the pastor has found his place in the belovedness of the divine Groom, the bride responds by walking through her community with the soft sound of sandaled feet.

And that is the best footwear—ever.

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The Meeting

“Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” ~ Jesus

For many generations, when parents would tuck their children in at night, they would have them say a little prayer. Many of you know this prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

 That’s kind of a cheery way to send kids off to bed, isn’t it? There’s actually a second verse:

Our days begin with trouble here, our life is but a span.

And cruel death is always near, so frail a thing is man.

 Night, night, honey—pleasant dreams.

People used to teach their kids to pray this, because people wanted their children to know that death is real, but it’s not the end.

Some time on Good Friday, while Jesus was being falsely accused, beaten and executed, the disciples ran for cover.  Their Messiah had been murdered.  Their hope had been nailed to a cross. They must have wondered, “Now, what do we do? How do we do life now that our hope has been executed?”

Jesus knew they needed a special visitation from Him. They needed to feel His calming presence and hear again His vision for the Kingdom in this world. Perhaps we do too.

Peace to you!

When Jesus says, “Peace be with you”, He isn’t just coining a new way to say ‘Hi.”  The word “Peace” captures the ancient Jewish idea of Shalom. It is the idea of wholeness and flourishing. When Jesus materializes on this Easter morning in this upper room and says, “Peace” he means that because of his death and resurrection all is well and all shall be well. The day of cosmic flourishing has begun.

Shalom is when nothing is broken and no one is missing. ~ Barbara Skinner

Because of the cross and the empty tomb, people like you and I with our brokenness, failings, and sinfulness can see the wholeness of resurrected life begin in our souls.

There’s a line in a song Window to the Sky, by U2, the number one rock and roll group in the world, that says,

The rule has been disproved, the stone it has been moved

The grave is now a groove, all debts are removed

Oh cant you see what love has done?

When Jesus stood before these frightened disciples he was sending a meta narrative to them and to us that says, “The grave that looms in your future that looked so much like a dead-end, is nothing but a groove, all debts are removed, Oh can’t you see what love has done?

We ought to be the kind of community that billionaires, and broke migrant workers would feel completely accepted. We ought to be the kind of community where people who are lily white could worship alongside a person of color. We ought to be the kind of community where liberals and conservatives could worship together. We ought to be the kind of community that would open wide her arms to receive Barak Obama and Donald Trump to join us in singing our favorite hymns in our churches.

If there were ever time for grace to dominate the discourse and radical acceptance to be the hallmark of the people of God it is this time. We will be that kind of place, so help us God.

That can only happen in the life of people who center their 24/7 lives around the Jesus who went to the cross and came out of the tomb.

The question I have is what would we have to do, what steps would you and I have to take in our own hearts, to be the kind of faith family that people of our community, regardless of their political, social, or sexual background, would feel comfortable coming here and sing praises to our risen King?

As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”

As Jesus washed dirty feet, embraced the social outcasts, and touched the lepers as the hands of the loving heavenly father in person, we want to be that for our world as well.

How will a family that doesn’t have enough food to eat ever come to know the one who came to call himself “the Bread of Life?” How will the children who live in Johnson Village trailer park, who feel mostly forgotten about, ever come to know about a God who cares about them? How will a woman who walks mile after mile to get dirty water out of a shallow well in the Sudan, ever learn about the one who came to call himself, “the Living Water”?

How will an undocumented immigrant living in the San Luis Valley, who hasn’t come this country to rape, sell drugs, or steal jobs, but is too scared to drive to Church for fear of being pulled over and deported, ever hear of from the God who said, “The foreigner residing among you must be…loved [as you love] yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Lev. 19:34) if we don’t listen to them and show them that they have nothing to fear from a white man?

These precious people need more than a prayer, a tract, or a wall. They need someone to show them the love of God.

We want to be the kind of people who will show this world that the God we say we worship loves this world and is determined to not leave it abandoned. And the resurrection of Jesus is God’s first installment to not only take care of our personal sins, but to begin the healing process that rights all of those wrongs.

One of my favorite poets is the 19th century poet GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS. He lived a very difficult life and yet was able to distill the presence of God in language like few others in his generation. He has a poem called, As Kingfishers Catch Fire that I want to share with you a few lines:

…the just man justices;

Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —

Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

…through the features of men’s faces.

May Jesus be lovely in your faces and may Jesus play in ten thousand places—through you.

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The Song

Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping. – John 20:11

Not too long ago I read an article in The Atlantic about the state of Jazz in America. It was written by a man named David Hadju where he describes the experience of visiting a jazz club. As the band begins to warm up and moves into its first set of songs, he thinks he sees the great jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Here is how he describes the scene…

“Excuse me,” I whispered to the fellow next to me (a jazz guitarist, I later learned). “Is that Wynton Marsalis?”

“I very seriously doubt that,” he snapped back.

The fourth song was a solo showcase for the trumpeter, who, I could now see, was indeed Marsalis, but who no more sounded than looked like what I expected. He played a ballad, “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You,” unaccompanied. Written by Victor Young, a film-score composer, for a 1930s romance, the piece can bring out the sadness in any scene, and Marsalis appeared deeply attuned to its melancholy. He performed the song in murmurs and sighs, at points nearly talking the words in notes. It was a wrenching act of creative expression.

When he reached the climax, Marsalis played the final phrase, the title statement, in declarative tones, allowing each successive note to linger in the air a bit longer. “I don’t stand … a ghost … of … a … chance …” The room was silent until, at the most dramatic point, someone’s cell phone went off, blaring a rapid singsong melody in electronic bleeps. People started giggling and picking up their drinks. The moment—the whole performance—unraveled.

Marsalis paused for a beat, motionless, and his eyebrows arched. I scrawled on a sheet of notepaper, MAGIC, RUINED.

I tell you this story because, in many ways, it describes Mary’s life. The magic of her life was ruined when Jesus died on the cross.

Her hope was Jesus. He had changed her life, and she had followed him ever since. He had cast seven demons out of her freeing her from untold torment. He had given her life…a reason to live…a place in the kingdom…He had given her worth and dignity…understanding…compassion…love…and he had given her hope.

Now that hope lies at the bottom of her heart, flat, and lifeless.

But something helps her survive that cruel moment. Something resilient, like a blade of grass that springs up after being stepped on. That something is love.

Love brought Mary to his cross. And love brings her now to his grave.

The early church looked at Mary, weary with weeping grief, just outside the tomb of Jesus, as a symbol of the whole world. Mary’s tears are the tears of Fresno where a man gunned down three random men in an apparent hate crime.  Mary’s tears are the tears of Colombo, Sri Lanka when a garbage dump collapsed and crashed into nearby homes, killing dozens.

Mary’s tears are the tears of the family of Robert Godwin Sr., 74, a former foundry worker and father of 10 who was picking up aluminum cans on Sunday when he was shot and then the video was posted on social media. Mary’s tears are the tears of the families of those killed by poisonous gas attacks in Syria that killed at least 86 people, including 26 children.

And Mary’s tears are the tears of your life, too. Mary is a stand-in for all the grief and suffering of all the world. But here is what is important to remember: It is to Mary in the predawn dark, in her most painful moment, that Jesus appears.

Of all the people that Jesus could have revealed himself to, he chooses Mary first.

Peter and John had been there earlier in the morning, but they didn’t see angels. Angels only turn up for Mary and her tears. Maybe it’s because, sometimes, you can only see angels through tears.

Easter is not about escaping this sorry dark world into the next world. Easter is about tearing a hole in the fabric that separates this world from the next so that heaven can get into this world.

One of the favorite artist that my son Clinton and I share, Jack Johnson, has a song that describes the complexities of life in the 21st century. It is a song filled with pain, sorrow and the angst of our times, but he has a line that serves as a refrain in the song that says:

There were so many fewer questions

When stars were still just the holes to heaven.

I love that imagery. Next time you step outside and look up to see the stars, think of them as tiny holes in the floor of heaven.

Easter is a Grand Canyon size hole in the floor of heaven. The eternal came flooding into our world through that opening when the stone was rolled away. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is a foretaste of the renewal, re-integration and restoration that is coming when the ‘thy-will-be-done-on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven’ part of our Lord’s prayer is answered once and for all.

Here’s the point of Easter:  God loves this world.

Sometimes I’ve said to skeptics that don’t yet believe in our faith that they should at least hope our faith is true; because it makes so much sense of the longings that are latent in all of our souls.

I love what Tolkien says,

We all long for [Eden], and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature…is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile’.

You, your children, and grandchildren may have walked away from the Church, but deep down they long for what the church stands for to be true. They have an ache for Eden.

The thirst for spirituality is not an illusion. It is there because we were made for another reality—God. Because God is our home. Your deep passion for health and education for children, justice in the world, and beauty in your life—these things are not random desires, they are inside us because they are a part of a world created by a God who made it to operate that way.

Why did my oldest son, Cole, take his four children to a park in Tacoma yesterday to pick up trash and celebrate Earth Day? Because he is a new age, liberal, tree-hugger? No, because for my son, who loves Jesus as passionately as any man I know, believes that how we respect this earth is a reflection of our love for the Creator-God who created the first garden called paradise and came back to life in a second garden of tombs.

David Hadju sat stunned in the back of the jazz club as the magic that he experienced in the room was ruined. But I want you to listen to what happened next…

The cell-phone offender scooted into the hall as the chatter in the room grew louder. Still frozen at the microphone, Marsalis replayed the silly cell-phone melody note for note. Then he repeated it, and began improvising variations on the tune. The audience slowly came back to him. In a few minutes he resolved the improvisation—which had changed keys once or twice and throttled down to a ballad tempo—and ended up exactly where he had left off: “I…don’t…stand…a…ghost…of…a…chance…with … you …” The ovation was tremendous.

That is a small picture of what God has done for us and the world at the empty tomb of Jesus. All the ways that we are unraveled, all the ways that we and the world are ruined—Jesus used all of that and transformed it into a restoration and healing.

Jesus has taken our brokenness, tears, and ruin—and he has refashioned it into a redemption song.

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Good Friday

A LAMENT FOR GOOD FRIDAY

I cry out to you, O Lord, I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”
For I am a world-class sinner and my relentless transgressions are ever before me.
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me and feel a million miles away?
Do not leave me alone with myself.

For I am a world-class sinner and my relentless transgressions are ever before me.
O Lord, love me for who I want to be; not who I am.
Do not leave me alone with myself.
I’ve been Your son for fifty-two years and need you every hour.

O Lord, love me for who I want to be; not who I am.
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me and feel a million miles away?
I’ve been Your son for fifty-two years and need you every hour.
I cry out to you, O Lord, I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”

Never celebrate Easter on Good Friday; it diminishes both. Do not hurry to Sunday, my friends. Feel deep the darkness. Be present with Jesus today.

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The Devil

My name is Legion; for we are many. ~ The Gadarene

If you make anything more important to your happiness, more important to your sense of self, more important to your sense of security than Jesus, it is your master. You have made a pact with it. You have made a Faustian deal. What is your heart centering on?

And if you win you get this shiny fiddle made of gold,
But if you lose the devil gets your soul. ~ Charlie Daniels

What is the driving thing that makes you want to get up in the morning? What is the real thing that makes you feel good about yourself? Or what is the core reason you can sleep at night?

I love how Rebecca Pippert puts it in her book Out of the Salt Shaker,

“Whatever controls us is our lord. The person who seeks power is controlled by power. The person who seeks acceptance is controlled by acceptance. We do not control ourselves. We are controlled by the lord of our lives.”

I’ve made a pack with somebody. I think I’m in charge and I’m wrong. Whatever is the center of my life.

Is it possible for security to be an idol?

According to Jesus, faithfulness moves us beyond love of neighbor to love of enemy. If pursuit of my safety trumps my ability to love whomever God has in my path, fear wins, and I distance myself from God’s heart for the world.

How can I love my “enemies” if I don’t know them? The idol of safety moves us away from people who are different than us and sends us inward to those who look, think, and act like we do. There is no love outside of relationship; there is only misunderstanding, demonization, and stereotype.

Jesus never called us to be safe; he called us to be faithful.

Interestingly, I find myself wrestling through this stuff during Holy Week. This is the week in which Jesus models to the world life as it was meant to be lived.

A life that ended with the uttering of this prayer for his enemies: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” These are the stories we tell in Sunday school and say, “Wow, Jesus was fearless! He wasn’t scared of anything, and I would do anything to live and love like that.”

Imagine if instead he chose to worship the idol of safety and never left the security of his little Galilean synagogue so he could read Torah and remain isolated from all the violence of the world? That story would not only stink, it wouldn’t reflect the heart of a God who literally moved into our human neighborhood to remind us what love looks like.

So, many of us buy more guns, hoard more food, pull away and only listen to and engage with people who are exactly like us in skin color, musical tastes, politics and fundamental sensibilities. And, as a result, we feel emboldened; we feel powerful. We might say, “They can have my guns when they pry them from my cold dead hands.” We almost dare “them” (pick a “them”) and say, “Come at me!”

But the more we focus on safety and security in our older age, the more we will find ourselves enslaved; because if we have at our core anything as more important than Jesus, our fears will reveal that we have struck a Faustian bargain.

By the way, I am not anti-security. I am anti-idol.

It is in seeing the cost Jesus paid to defeat evil in your life that you begin to understand how much He loves you, that frees you. Now you can look at the good things in your world and realize they are not the ultimate things; and the Faustian pact is broken.

Now your safety is just a lock on your door. Your security is wise financial stewardship.

They are not your savior.

During the Second World War, when Hitler conquered France, he immediately shut down the borders to keep the people from leaving the country. But one small border town saw its population diminish rapidly, so the Germans searched for the answer.

It turned out, this town had a cemetery that straddled the border with the neighboring country, which was free from Nazi control. The locals opened up an ancient gate in the wall of the cemetery, and they kept having “funerals” – except the people never came back! They went out to the tombs, but they just kept on walking, right out the back gate, to their freedom!

Perhaps it is time to have a funeral for the idols of your heart and walk out of the cemetery of your life in freedom singing that old familiar song,

All to Jesus I surrender
All to Him I freely give
I will ever love and trust Him
In His presence daily live

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A Lament for the Syrian Children

Photo: WFP/Abeer Etefa

You are the Lord, most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods.
Poisonous gas has filled the lungs of the young ones and bombs are exacting revenge.
If you are as strong and merciful as you say you are, why won’t you stop the violence?
I have said to the Lord, “You are my God; listen, O Lord, to my supplications and stop the violence.

Poisonous gas has filled the lungs of the young ones and bombs are exacting revenge.
O Lord, protect the children from the evil of men.
I have said to the Lord, “You are my God; listen, O Lord, to my supplications and stop the violence.
O that wrinkled eyes, crepe-skinned hands, and bent backs would be the kind fate of the little ones.

O Lord, protect the children from the evil of men.
Poisonous gas has filled the lungs of the young ones and bombs are exacting revenge.
O that wrinkled eyes, crepe-skinned hands, and bent backs would be the kind fate of the little ones.
You are the Lord, most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods.

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