Strolling Through Psalms: Psalm 1

Life has its seasons. Some are wonderful, honeymoon-type experiences that always seem to end too soon. Others are manic, break-neck paced efforts just to stay afloat. Some seasons are sweet and others are sad. Still others, like raising small children, are a delightful mixture of all of the above – crazy and hard and wonderful. I’m currently living in what I hope is the tail end of an incredibly challenging season. There are days when I’m on. I feel secure and confident and loved, and I tackle the latest matter of concern with wisdom and grace. Those are fantastic days. More commonly, however, my first impulse is to default to something a bit less mature. I want to rant and rave, words which are not in my active vocabulary threatening to erupt from my lips. In order to combat and circumvent such outbursts, I turn to Scripture, more specifically to the book of Psalms. If there was ever a guy who had reason to spit and sputter at the injustices life had dealt him, it was David. The young shepherd-boy was anointed as king of Israel, but he had some growing up to do before he was thoroughly equipped for the job. If anyone could speak the language of fear and frustration and ultimate faith that I need to hear, it is this very David.

I started reading one Psalm each morning, then pondered its meaning and personal application throughout the day. Some days this brought the comfort that someone understood what I was feeling. Other days, I was strongly encouraged by reminders of the incredible goodness of God, of the unfathomable depth of His love. But some days, oh man, some days were just special. On those days, I recognized truth in words that I have read many times before, but never quite understood. Or maybe I just began to understand them differently. With that in mind, I’ve decided to share some of the things I’ve learned while strolling through Psalms. It is my bravely hopeful intent to share one or two of these posts each week. These will likely be much shorter (and less carefully edited) than my usual posts. Certainly none will be presented as a deep theological treatise, but rather quick glimpses into whatever thought /insight /light bulb moment I happened to have that particular morning.

Of course, my OCD nature can do no other than to begin with Psalm 1.

Psalm 1:1-3 NIV(emphasis added)

Verse 1

Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,

A great way to glean the meaning of Scripture is to pay attention to the verbs. Here we see a relationship developing – walking, standing, then sitting. The order in the sentence coveys a progression, a deepening of the relationship.

In my mind’s eye I picture two men who are meeting for the first time. In walking, they are casual acquaintances. They talk briefly, perhaps say Hello, then go their separate ways.

When they take the time to stand, they are engaging in conversation, getting to know each other, telling about themselves. The conversation will be fairly quick, and on the surface level, but they will probably discover a thing or two they have in common.

Finally, when they sit together, they are investing in the relationship. Here they are discussing matters of importance with each other. Whether they are talking about football or business or their faith, the conversation will likely go into more depth and be about things that genuinely matter to them. This stage is where friendships are formed.

If we look back to the first word in the verse – Blessed – it is obvious that we need to choose very carefully with whom we walk, stand, and sit. My Mama (and probably yours as well) always said that you can judge the character of a man by the company he keeps. Who is my tribe? What kind of people are they? When I spend time with them, that is the kind of person I will become as well.

Verse 2
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.

Delight is such a rich word. It implies great pleasure or satisfaction. I haven’t always delighted in the law of the Lord. It used to feel like a burden to me – a really long list of ideals that I would never ever live up to. At that time, I understood very little about the heart of the Father. When I began to recognize that God sees me, He hears me, He cares about me, everything changed. He sacrificed His best to rescue a bonehead like me. When I know that I am loved and that God is for me, reading His word becomes a source of comfort, joy, and encouragement.

The word meditate feels very New Age-y. Now, there’s nothing wrong with sitting cross-legged, clearing your mind, and meditating. You can even fire up the diffuser with some lavender oil and do yoga. I have some redneck friends who would balk at this idea, but the truth is that it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Meditating is simply a matter of turning your mind toward something. Some of my best contemplation time used to occur when I was running. I could cast my thoughts towards a problem that needing solving, a lesson I was planning, or some important concept from Scripture. Now when I read a Psalm each day, I try to pull out one focal verse, or even one line, to ponder off and on throughout the day.

Verse 3
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.

A tree planted by a stream is green and lush. Its roots tap deep into the soil, reaching the source of the water. It’s there to stay, not hopping from one location to the next. Similarly, when I am rooted in God’s Word, I am grounded and connected to my Source. His life flows through me. When the storms of life blow, I may bend in the wind but I will not snap like a dry, parched tree. In time, when I stay connected, I will bear fruit. Just think about this. Apple trees don’t stress and strain to produce apples. They don’t get all bent out of shape because they aren’t producing pears. They just do what they were created to do, and when they have good nourishment from the soil and the proper amounts of water and sunlight, the apples just develop naturally.

That was an important thought for me a couple weeks ago when I carefully considered the words of this Psalm. David says here that whatever this person does will prosper: not because he’s the most amazing person alive, but because he focuses his heart and mind on the Word of God, then he simply does what he was created to do.

So shall I.

Shut Up And Write Already

Today is one of those days when I really KNEW for sure that I am a writer girl. I don’t just enjoy writing; it is something I need. There are observations to record, stories to tell, connections to make. If I don’t write these things down, I may explode. And that’s not good.

I was invited to join a writing group. All the books on writing that I’ve read recommend finding one. That just sounds so stinking cool – and so incredibly intimidating. On the one hand, I was pretty excited, like I’d been invited into some sort of inner sanctum, confirming to all the world that I was indeed an actual writer. What better way to get sound advice on my craft than to hang out with fellow writers? On the other hand, there is the fear that I will be way out of my league. What if I totally stink at this and no one has had the heart to tell me? Like all those awkward bird/house/tree pictures I have on my refrigerator, treasured because they were gifts from my daughter – but not exactly museum-caliber art.

As it turned out, the first meeting I was invited to was cancelled because the leader had to go out of town. Aw, man! As I hoped she would, the lady who invited me suggested that we still meet for some dedicated writing time. My friend, a fellow writer-girl, and I decided to give it a shot. We met her at a cozy old southern home turned coffee shop. This lady was someone I’d met before but had never had a real conversation with. Coffee in hand, the three of us started chatting about our lives, our writing, our dreams, our plans. The conversation flowed quickly, with many varied twists and turns. Before I knew it, well over two hours had passed. Truth be told, not one of us had jotted down a single syllable.

The interesting thing is, I believe that each of us walked away with some valuable information and ideas to spur on our individual writing projects. At one point during our discussion, my mind was swimming with fresh Inspiration. I wondered if it would be rude of me to blurt out, “Could y’all just shut up a minute? I need to write some things down!” Deciding it would, I softly made the comment in jest. We all laughed and agreed that we’d been thinking the same thing. But the conversation was so good, we just kept going. As we drove home later, before I could even talk to my friend, I immediately began to scribble down as many ideas as I could remember, willing the thoughts not to flutter out of my active memory before I could record them. Many did fly away, but the few that remained provided solid material for several upcoming blog posts.

When I got home I was so frustrated, I was grumpy. There were these amazing ideas burning holes in my mind, butterflies of stellar sentences, lighting but never staying still long enough for me to capture. And there were so many annoyances demanding my immediate attention. The dogs insisted on darting inside when I opened the door. Evicting them again took a bit of cunning, accompanied by a beef-flavored treat. There were meals to prepare and eat, dishes to wash, three separate text conversations that needed a response, and 17 emails to either answer or delete. I had five hours until my next scheduled event, and already I felt rushed. I just wanted everyone to leave me alone so I could write! I paused and considered this. It was a moment, both terrible and beautiful, that I felt deep within. My soul smiled at the knowledge that I am indeed a writer. I don’t know why it is so hard to acknowledge this. But it is.

It’s kind of like when I admitted that I am a “real runner” and a “real musician.” Certainly there are others – many, many others – who are more skilled than I am, but I count myself in their number. I am a writer.

While writing I find myself in a perpetual sparring match between the chirping crickets of a blank page and the monsoon’s raging mudslide of not being able to type the words fast enough. Both can make me a little nuts! Writing is such an oxymoron: wonderfully horrible, and yet horribly wonderful at the same time. It’s a lot like running. While I’m doing it, it’s torture. I just want it to be over. The thing is, I’m happier and more relaxed when I do these activities, and as soon as I’m done, I can hardly wait until the next time.

So what’s a girl to do? First, I take a deep breath. Then another. Maybe a few more after that. Our brains really like oxygen so I’ve started breathing every day. Turns out this is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Then I prepare my environment. One thing I’ve learned is that I tend not to write especially well when the television is on. That adult ADD kicks in and I’ll be knee-deep in a “7thHeaven” mini-binge before I know what hit me. I also cannot write while listening to certain genres of music. I simply cannot have all those other people’s words cluttering up my brain. The two things I have found that I can handle, and indeed enjoy as a backdrop for my writing, are Tchaikovsky and Beethoven playing softly in the background. The “Immortal Beloved” soundtrack is a particular favorite. Ludwig gets me. Perhaps that makes me a nerd, but that’s okay. I’m willing to own it. Sometimes I write in my cozy office upstairs, sometimes while reclining on the living room couch. Lately I’ve become a yuppy writer who hangs out in coffee shops. It’s a rite of passage.

Having settled my breathing pattern and pulled up a blank document, it’s time to get busy. The allure of the unfolded laundry is strong; yet I persevere. I gather up my writing idea book, or hastily scribbled hieroglyphics on a sticky note, or church bulletin, or Dunkin Donuts napkin. At the top of my document, I name it something clever to help me remember later what on earth I started writing about. This one is called “Shut Up”. Please, don’t judge. I transfer my erratic conglomeration of ideas into bullet points at the top of the page. This helps me remember where I intend to go with the particular piece. Often a bit of shifting and combining or adding will be required. This has a mystical, dare I say, ethereal effect. My page is no longer glaring white. This takes off an incredible amount of pressure.

Having organized my thoughts, it’s time to begin. And let me tell you, nothing makes me more productive than a sense of purpose combined with a solid plan. I write some absolute poop at this point. I gush and spit and sputter and generally hurl my random assortment of thoughts onto the page. Having spent two decades as an English teacher, I do have a fairly decent internal editor; but even so, my rough drafts are indeed rough. Embarrassingly so. I squeeze the words out of my head and onto the page, safe only in the knowledge that unless I die an untimely death and my family dares open the unfinished draft, no other human will ever be subjected to these pitiful first attempts at saying something meaningful.

First drafts are wonderful in that they are supposed to be bad. I chase rabbits and say stupid stuff and generally fail to make my point in any kind of coherent fashion.  I often mix metaphors and change tenses three times in the course of one paragraph. It’s a hot mess. Finally, I just quit. A person can only produce so much garbage in the course of one day. Then I let it simmer for a day or two. Like good southern chili, the flavors deepen and improve with time. The revision is where the real art begins. Having slopped the words onto a page, like ingredients waiting to go into a pot, I sauté and stir, chopping and dicing sentences, adding a pinch of this and a dash of that until the blend is just right, or as close as it can get on that particular day.  Eventually, I call it done. Most times I read the whole piece out loud, because sometimes what I mean to say and what I actually type are two very different things. This also gives me a better sense of whether or not the words convey the message I have in mind. I fix it up, send it out, and pray for the best.

So, what am I learning as I begin to see myself as a “real writer”?

  • Write more often. That, combined with voracious reading, is the only way to improve. I’ve started setting aside certain days/hours each week that are designated writing time, just like a regular job.
  • Make the most of my minutes. When it’s writing time, those other things have to wait. The dishes will still be there when I’m done. (Where are those minions when you need them???)
  • I have things to say.
  • First drafts are going to stink. This is why editing/revising is so important.
  • Have a notepad ready at all times to record ideas, great sentences, quick impressions.
  • I may never be God’s gift to the writing world, but writing is God’s gift to me. How I use it becomes my gift back to Him.

Finding Peace

Some days I laugh out loud about funny things my mother said or did. For example, for a woman gifted with many talents, the extremely simple concept of throwing a Frisbee completely eluded her. A Frisbee toss with Florence required cat-like skills, and maybe even a football helmet. Some days I smile at things she taught me, like how to sew a simple stitch – with or without a sewing machine. Some days my smile is more wistful, as I consider the lessons I picked up on simply by watching her live her life. Some days I just miss my mom. I mean, really, really miss her.

My mom passed away a little over two years ago, during Mother’s Day weekend. I don’t have her anymore as my top cheerleader and sounding board. But I do have two treasures: a stack of her journals (which one day I’ll be brave enough to actually read) and two of her Bibles. One is the beat-up old Scofield KJV that I vividly remember from childhood; the other is an equally marked-up Amplified version that was her study Bible in her last days.

The past year has been a tough one. I find myself walking on ground I never in a million years expected to trod. Yet here I am. I wish my mom was here to guide me, to talk to, to hear her amazing blend of compassionately no-nonsense wisdom, to see those green eyes light up with fiery passion, then with sweet grace, as she prayed with me and for me. These days the missing her is a deep, unfathomable ache, almost another presence in the room.

Having been a Christ-follower for the majority of my life, I feel like I should certainly have a better grasp on what to think, what to do. But I kinda don’t have a clue. So I do what my Mama taught me: I turn to Scripture.

For the last couple months, I’ve been taking a very leisurely stroll through the book of Psalms. If anyone ever in the history of mankind understood the heart of Father God, it is David, shepherd boy turned king. My basic plan is to read one chapter per day, and then spend the day considering what it says and how it might relate to my life. Sometimes a particular psalm will require more than one day. There’s a reason the 23rdPsalm is one of the most treasured chapters in the entire Bible. I believe a person could spend time pondering it, line by line, word by word, for a year and never fully grasp its rich glimpses into the character of God. I didn’t camp out quite that long (yet), but I surely did enjoy the days spent there.

In one of those amazing planetary alignments, I was asked to share a devotional at a small women’s gathering, I was kind of caught up in Psalm 37 at the time, and I was so very much missing my Mama. As I began to pray over what to share, I was certain that Psalm 37 would be the foundational text. I had a vague idea where to go with my talk, but it just wasn’t shaping up quite right. I wondered what my mom thought about when she read King David’s words. I took her time-worn KJV off my shelf, pausing a moment to savor the weight of it in my hands, of seeing her handwriting on the pages, of catching that warm scent that happens when old leather books are opened. And wouldn’t you know it? She had marks all over Psalm 37. For a fleeting second it was like she was leaning over my shoulder, her hair brushing against my cheek as her delicate finger pointed out, “Here! Look at this!”

What follows in bold text are the verses, with underlining and points she designated. Now, knowing my Mama, she may have heard this in a sermon and thought it worthy of remembering, or it may have been something God revealed to her during a time of private study. Either option is just as likely as the other. I’ll also share a few of my own thoughts on each verse.

 

FRET NOT: Five Active Verbs – Recipe for a Fret-Free Life

Psalm 37:1-9 (KJV)

1 Fret notthyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity.

For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb.

  • It is so easy to get stressed out over the things we cannot change. “Bad” people seem to get ahead while “Good” people have a hard time of it. No matter our circumstances, there is no need to fret. We can trust God.

TRUST

Trustin the Lord, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed. 

  • We need to trust our heavenly Father. This sounds so very obvious, but when we have been wronged in some way, our natural tendency is to take matters into our own hands. Many is the time I have wanted to put a hand on my hip, point my finger in someone’s face, and tell them off. Man! Wouldn’t that be satisfying…for about ten seconds! Instead of retaliating, we need to seek God’s wisdom. Sometimes He will reveal a course of action, perhaps relying on the legal system or seeking mediation. Sometimes He will ask us to do the hardest thing of all – nothing. This one is hard. So stinking hard. However, when we trust God and do good (even when we REALLY don’t want to), we are submitting to His Lordship and aligning ourselves with His heart. My family is in the middle of a situation in which a person who has done wrong seems to be winning at life, whereas our every step forward is slow and methodical and earned at a great price. Yet even in this we can see the fingerprints of the Father. It will not be our job to take this person down. Our greatest responsibility here is to live justly and entrust the situation into the hands of the only One with any real power to change things.
  • When we take that monstrous leap of trusting Him, we will see that God is much more concerned with our character than our circumstances, and obedience will always precede blessings.

DELIGHT

Delightthyself also in the Lord: and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.

  • I used to think that this verse meant that if I just worshiped God on Sunday, He would give me anything that I wanted, kind of like a cosmic Santa Claus. And I wanted all kinds of things, many of which weren’t especially good for me. Much like a small child who has never been given the safety of reasonable limits (admit it, you’ve seen more than one toddler fling himself to the floor in a store when he wasn’t immediately given whatever it was he wanted at the time.) when we live for our own selfish desires, we can quickly spiral out of control: “So what if I don’t have enough money for those cool new shoes? I really, really want them. I’ll add them to the credit card. What’s another $200? I won’t have to pay for right away. Ooohhh! Look at those earrings!” Then ten minutes later, we want something else, then something else, then another something else. When we are grasping at the latest shiny thing, we will never be truly satisfied. There will always be that something else that we think we need. The same principle applies in our spiritual lives. I’ve grown to understand that when I delight myself in the Lord He is able to give me the desires of my heart because as we spend time together my desires begin to change. It becomes more clear that all the fancy cars and houses and shoes will never bring me joy. Not for long anyway. What my heart truly longs for is wisdom and peace and love, and for the people that I love to experience these things as well. As I invest in our relationship, I become more like my Father; what I want is what He wants.

COMMIT

Committhy way unto the Lord; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass.

And he shall bring forth thy righteousness as the light, and thy judgment as the noonday.

  • Committing my way unto the Lord means surrendering the ownership of my life. There’s that trust thing again. The whole WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) fad a few years back took an amazing, life-affirming concept and somehow managed to make it trite. This is more than just throwing out a buzz phrase or wearing the latest trendy bracelet. One of the things I’ve started doing is consecrating my day to God. Before my feet hit the floor, I make an intentional effort to focus my mind on His mind, my heart on His heart (AKA the Gospel), my thoughts, my actions on His. This takes effort and intentionality. When I realize that I am not my own, I can quit fighting. I can let go. I can quit worrying about things. When I am obedient, my only concern is doing what God says; making it happen is His job.

REST

Restin the Lord, and wait patiently for him: fret notthyself because of him who prospereth in his way, because of the man who bringeth wicked devices to pass.

  • Resting in the Lord is a lesson I am currently learning. My family is facing a challenging situation right now. I look at the circumstances and get so afraid, so frustrated. Nothing looks like it is going to work out right. The immediate natural impulse I have is for something – anything – besides resting. That’s when I have to take a deep breath, remember the ways God has intervened on our behalf, the way He orchestrated events as we never could, and then rehearse the goodness of God. I can rest because He is faithful. I can rest because He reminds me that what “seems” is not necessarily what “is.” I can rest because my enemies are no match for Almighty God. I can rest because He is true to His Word. I can rest because the track record for God keeping His promises is exactly 100%. Whether we can see it or not, God is at work. I can rest in Him.

CEASE

Ceasefrom anger, and forsake wrath: fret notthyself in any wise to do evil.

  • Letting go of anger is so important. This verse does not in any way imply that we are wrong to be angry about certain situations. Even Jesus got angry when people were turning His Father’s house – set aside to be a house of prayer for all people – into a place to turn a profit at the expense of others. Genuine injustices should make us angry. It’s what we do with that emotion that makes all the difference. When someone we care about is wronged, for example, we want to retaliate. We want to make that offender pay, and pay dearly, for what they have done. There have been situations when I have taken my anger to God …but had to be very careful not to pray that the offender be run over by a bus. One thing I have learned is that when I let anger get deep within me, I have allowed the other person control over me. They may not even know or care that I’m mad. People have spent decades wallowing in such anger and bitterness. And that’s just sad. Letting go of anger involves forgiving. This ain’t even easy. But it releases the control that the situation has over you. There is a difference here between forgiveness and excusing. Excusing says “That’s Okay.” And it’s not. Whatever happened was harmful or hurtful to you. Forgiveness says “That hurt me. Still, I release you from this debt” – and in doing so I release myself.

ADDED BONUS: A PROMISE

For evildoers shall be cut off: but those that wait upon the Lord, they shall inherit the earth.

  • God will take care of the evildoers. We don’t have to worry about that. When we follow His leadership, God will bless us. All that we need will be supplied in just the right way and at just the right time. We can quit worrying. Period. We can enjoy our relationships with other people and with Him. This is perhaps the best part.

Going Deeper

Recently I had the opportunity to take my Sudanese friend and seven of her children to the beach. She and the three oldest girls jumped in and swam like dolphins. The three little girls, following their lead, ran headlong into the surf – and immediately wiped out. Salty and distressed, they retreated to a very nice tidal pool, eased their way in, and played for hours. It was safe there with no pesky waves, just calm, serene water. Still, there was this pull to the ocean, to frolic in that wild surf.

Eventually the little girls could resist no longer; they decided to brave the waves once more. Carefully, very carefully, they dipped their toes into the surf, breath shallow and hearts pounding. As soon as the water hit them, they ran screaming onto the dry sand, then immediately went back again. The oldest younger daughter, Sahiba, is eight. She is all dark chocolate arms and legs and dimples. Sahiba was determined to learn to swim, but she was scared. She grabbed my hand and took a couple of steps past the shore and into the water.

Sahiba was too afraid to go any farther than knee-deep. The only thing was, that’s where the waves were breaking and she (and I) was being tossed about badly from the full impact. I kept telling her, “Go a step deeper, Sahiba. Hold onto me and take one more step.” Though they have only been in the U.S. for a couple of years, my friend and her older children are reasonably proficient in English; however, once she got excited, Sahiba reverted to her native language. She pointed at the waves and began telling me all about it in Maasalit. Even though I know very few Maasalit words, I definitely understood her meaning: “Can’t you see these big waves? They are knocking me down? I can’t go any further.” But I also understood what she did not – that if she would just go a little farther out, the water would be smoother.

Later on, I was trying to teach Sahiba to float on her back. She would stretch her arms out, stick her toes up, but as soon as I made any move to release her, she immediately stood up. I told her, “If you fight me, you are going to sink.” In that instant, God spoke to my heart: “What about you?” The sun still shone, the waves still pounded, little girls still giggled between waves, but for me, it was a moment frozen in time. I simply could not get away from that question.

Little by little, small successes sprinkled with failures, Sahiba worked her way into deeper water. She still held onto me for dear life, but she conquered her fear – driven both by her desire to move beyond the tidal pool and her trust in me.

On the ride home, the girls chatted quietly about their day at the shore, then one-by-one, they fell asleep. I, however, smiled as I fought back tears. This simple day at the beach was absolutely rich with meaning as God impressed His truth upon my heart.

  • Sometimes when we rush headlong into something, we will wipe out.

We see other people doing things that we wish we could do, so we hurl ourselves into them with great gusto. Only we have no idea what we’re doing, and we might fail. Our enthusiasm can propel us forward, but it may not completely prepare us for the task at hand.

  • But that doesn’t mean we should give up.

Failing the first time, or even the 53rdtime, does not make us a failure. We may not be great at something right away. It often takes time to hone a skill like swimming or playing an instrument or developing the discernment that comes from reading Scripture. We have to practice again and again and again, learning from our mistakes and building on our successes.

  • Playing in the tidal pool builds confidence.

While it lacks the intensity of the ocean, a tidal pool still has its benefits. Sahiba found a small section about knee deep and began practicing putting her head in the water. With a few attempts she became more comfortable being under the water and holding her breath.

  • That doesn’t mean we should stay there forever.

The tidal pool is calm and serene. The baby (age 18 months) wanted nothing to do with the ocean. He was perfectly content to sit and splash in the warm, ankle-deep pool. The noise and the waves terrified him and he wanted no part of that. Sahiba, however, began to long for something more. The tidal pool may be safe, but the excitement level was quite low. More and more often Sahiba began to fix her gaze on the ocean, so close, yet just beyond her reach.

  • We want to go deeper, but we are afraid.

Sahiba saw her mom and sisters swimming and she wanted to join them. But the waves! They were big, so very big! They’d already knocked her down once. That’s a scary, out-of-control experience. But still, her family members were obviously having a great time and she wanted to join them. Sometimes following Jesus is a lot like this. We want to grow deeper in our relationship with Him, but it’s so frightening, so beyond what we are used to, so very…unknown. We long for it, but we can be afraid of what it might require of us. Our inadequacies might be revealed. People might think we are weird. Shoot, we may even have to (GULP…) change certain habits or become a missionary or something crazy like that. Scare-ree!

  • When we stop short, the waves will crash all around us.

Sahiba took a couple of bold steps that brought her into water about knee-deep. She was brave to even try. It took an act of courage to get her to that point. But she stopped at exactly the point where the waves were breaking. She was tossed about, clearly out of control. This made her nervous and she retreated to the safety of the shore. Time and time again she would wade out, get knocked around by the waves, then dash back to safety. She kept trying the same thing and ended up with the same results. Sahiba could see what she wanted, but she was too afraid to go past where she had already been. I think I have done the same thing hundreds of times in my walk with Jesus. I see the faith of other people and long for that kind of intimacy with my Father. There have been times, for example, when I’ve started a Bible study with great enthusiasm. Then things start getting personal. Holy Spirit starts revealing things to me. I don’t like what He’s bringing up. It will hurt if I have to deal with that stronghold. It will cost my comfort level if I actually deal with the issue at hand.  I then dash back to the safety of my status quo, gazing at the freedom Christ offers, but unwilling to take the step past the waves of guilt and remorse and pain crashing all around me.

  • A step beyond our comfort zone things are often surprisingly smoother.

As we step beyond what we have always known and into who we could be, we discover that the surf here is not as fierce as we expected. The waves are still coming in as they always have, but from this vantage point we are able to see them coming and position ourselves to gently roll over the top of them as they crash further on, well past us. Maneuvering through the waves is not nearly as difficult as we expected. It took a dedicated effort to get here, and while our vigilance is still required, the effort is not so great as it once was. Spiritually, we are able to recall our trust in our Father. Recalling the promises He has kept and the ways He has rescued us in the past gives us courage to face the future. This remembering is what I call Practicing the Goodness of God. Problems will surely come so we have to remain aware, but He gently lifts us above them, secure in His love.

  • If we fight Him, we will sink.

It took several tries for me to relay the concept of floating on her back to Sahiba. She was tense, ignored my instructions, and quickly went under. I knew what she needed to do. I needed her to listen to me. I needed her to trust what I was telling her, even if it seemed a little crazy: “WHAT? Point my toes? Let water get in my ears? Stretch my arms straight out??? I don’t think so!”  Unlikely as it may have sounded to her at the time, I knew that if she would trust me, she would float on top of the waves. If she fought even one part of the process, she would sink. As we grow in our trust, Jesus begins to develop our character. Sometimes the things He asks of us are uncomfortable and even a little scary: “Spend time with Me each day. Deal with this deep pain from your childhood. Tell that lady over there how much I love her. Quit pretending with Me; I want you to be gut-level honest in your prayers.” It’s hard sometimes. Yet Jesus knows us inside out. We need to listen to Him and to trust that not only does He know best, He also has the best in mind for our good and His glory.

  • When we are in deep water, we can cling to our Father.

Sometimes Sahiba clung tightly, eyes wide with fear, chattering away at me in Maasalit. Other times she let go for a minute and tried out her own abilities, laughing as she practiced navigating the surf. Several times Sahiba’s head went under, but she always popped back up, and I was there to catch her while she caught her breath. I never left her side. She knew I was right there with her and I wouldn’t let anything happen to her. Similarly, as we begin to grow deeper in our faith, Jesus is right there beside us. It is His hand we cling to. His Word promises that He will never leave us or forsake us. No matter what our fears may try to tell us, no matter what the circumstances look like, this is a truth that is steady and unchanging. When we go through deep water, He is there. Always.

Adventures with Carlos the Cardinal

Not too long ago, my husband and I received a pet we neither expected nor asked for. A cardinal has taken up residence on our porch in a most bold fashion. We’ve all seen the adorable pictures of bird nests in mailboxes and in attic rafters. In all fairness, birds are creatures of nature and in many ways we have encroached upon their habitat. As such, they tend not to recognize or respect our property lines. While I don’t blame them for that, the simple truth is that sometimes their presence can be cute and charming, at others, annoying or even destructive.

As spring bravely attempted to arrive in GA (truthfully, this took several tries), our back yard was suddenly filled with birds – bluebirds, cardinals, finches, woodpeckers, sparrows, and doves. In a flurry of stunning songs and colorful feathers, they clamored and flitted and staked out nesting sites. It was quite a spectacle for several days, I must admit. Eventually turf was established, nests were built, and things generally settled down into a comfortable rhythm. Then there was Carlos.

Carlos is a beautiful red male cardinal. He and Mrs. Carlos have a nest among the wisteria vines on the trellis twelve feet off our back porch. We’ve had nesters here before and were perfectly content to share the space with them. We’ve always enjoyed having birds around, especially now that we don’t have an attack cat trying to single handedly consume the entire Southeastern bird population.

I learned that there is quite a bit of mystique about cardinals. Here’s what Google had to say:

“Cardinals have long been symbolic of beauty in the midst of darkness, hope in the midst of sorrow, and renewal in the midst of winter. Whether these symbolic meanings came from the folk proverb, or the proverb came from the traditional symbolism, in any case many people are reminded of the presence of a departed loved one when seeing a cardinal bird land nearby. “

I was home alone a few weeks ago, just wiping the sleep from my still-groggy eyes when I heard a racket on the back porch. Our elderly chocolate diva Lucy is now rather ottoman-shaped and more inclined to napping than frolicking these days. Surely that wasn’t her. It sounded for all the world like someone beating on the back glass. I dressed quickly and tentatively stuck my head around the corner to see what it might be. There he was. Carlos. Rather I should say, the cardinal-soon-to-be-named Carlos. When you invest this much time in a bird, he gets a name.

Carlos sat on the porch swing, then hurled his body at the window, wings spread wide, beak crashing into the window. Over and over and over again. For thirty minutes this went on. I thought surely he would eventually tire of whatever game this was and move on to catching worms or something. Surely I was wrong. He never stopped. That sucker was relentless.

I did some further research and discovered that male cardinals are prone to this behavior. They see their reflection in the window and believe it to be a rival male. They are highly territorial and seek to ward off the offender. Swell.

In an effort to distract Carlos and end this madness, I decided to cover the window. In doing so, I reasoned that it needed to be outside so he wouldn’t continue to see his reflection. Wouldn’t you know it? There are no curtain rods on the outside of my house. Eventually I duct taped a beach towel over the window then added a piece of cardboard at the bottom. Success! The window was covered! Carlos inspected this new development and flew away. For about ten minutes. Then he was back – at the next window. Have mercy!!!

So it has been all day every day for the last two weeks. Sunrise to sunset. On and on and on he goes.

Since this is how my brain works, I began to consider what observations we might take away from Carlos the Cardinal, or as I sometimes call him, Tenacious C.

  • He bravely defends what’s his

Those soon-to-be-born baby chicks have a father who valiantly defends those under his care. He is not afraid to take on that shiny red bird in the window if it means protecting his little brood.

  • He never seems to tire

Day in and day out, Carlos never calls in sick and he never sends the Mrs. out to do his job. He is fiercely dedicated and untiring in his efforts to protect his family. His beak must be throbbing, yet he shows up again bright and early the next morning.

  • His focus is entirely wrong

Like Don Quixote, Carlos spends his entire day fighting a foe that is no foe. The shiny red bird in the window is an illusion. There are, however, bigger birds and probably snakes in the vicinity of his nest. None of these seem to have his attention. How often do we burn emotional energy on all the wrong things, while very real dangers go ignored?

  • He does not want or welcome my help

I went out of my way to help Carlos. In the past, we’ve had birds come crashing full-tilt into our back door, knocking themselves to the ground. The moment they landed, there was a dog or cat, highly offended at the encroachment upon their home, who gobbled them up without blinking. I was hoping to spare Carlos this fate. He did not recognize my assistance for what it was and simply moved on to the next window. This can happen to us as well when we see someone else’s need and step in to offer assistance. Sometimes they are too deeply involved in their circumstances to recognize that they even need help. Sometimes they don’t appreciate us butting in uninvited. Sometimes we are the towel hanger; sometimes we are the bird. Not every situation requires our input. It takes wisdom and discernment to know the proper time to offer and to receive help.

  • He made a mess

Having camped out for two weeks on my porches, Carlos has left behind some tangible evidence of his presence. There is bird poop strategically placed near the porch rail, the bench, the swing.  My windows are covered with literally thousands of marks his beak left behind. I can tell exactly where Carlos has been. Eventually someone will have to clean all that up, and you can rest assured that it won’t be Carlos.

  • He’s incredibly distracting

It is hard for me to even hang out in my own living room right now. The fluttery attack, tap-tap-tapping on my windows take place ad nauseam. It is difficult to think of anything else. I keep hoping that it will be like having a home near the railroad tracks and eventually acclimating to the rumble so that you don’t even notice the trains anymore. We have not yet reached this point. While I appreciate his efforts as a good father, I must confess that there are days I contemplate cooking up a little Carlos cacciatore. (I’m kidding. Mostly.)

  • He’s both endearing and frustrating

Some days I feel sorry for Carlos. He will never, ever defeat that bird in the window. Likewise, he will never completely rest because obviously attacking that shiny bird is always on his mind, his first and last act each day. Some days I’m amused by all the flutter. Some days I’m frustrated by the non-stop tapping. It can be that way as well when dealing with problems in life. Something that should be a minor irritation, when it continues and continues and continues, can grow into something much bigger in our minds. Our attitudes definitely shape our perspective.

Short of reapplying our wooden Hurricane Irma window coverings, I’m not quite sure what to do with Carlos. Like the rest of us, Carlos is a mixed bag of positive and negative attributes. We can be fiercely dedicated to an ideal and invest every ounce of our time and energy into it – but it matters greatly whether or not that passion, that chosen path, is worthy of our time and effort. Is it really accomplishing what we hope it will? Or are we wearing ourselves out over illusions – perhaps well-intended, but illusions just the same?

How can we tell the difference? I leave you with two verse of Scripture that speak to this question.

“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” – James 1:5

“Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think on these things.” – Philippians 4:8

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Cardinal info found online: http://www.usurnsonline.com/memorials/cardinal-appears-yard-visitor-heaven/

 

Prayer Ax Part 4 – Diligence

Our daily prayer times have much in common with chopping wood with an ax. We achieve better results when we understand the order of things. Our efforts are improved when we use the proper tools and prepare ourselves. We achieve more when we are focused rather than swinging away at anything and everything. Today we turn our attention to one last, necessary trait that prayer and wood cutting have in common: diligence.

You know what I tend to think would be incredibly terrific? If God would just go ahead and answer my prayer before the words were out of my mouth. I mean, seriously, wouldn’t that be fantastic??? Well, maybe not. Sometimes I am overly emotional or angry or scared when I sputter a prayer, and on those occasions I might blurt out things that I don’t mean at all once I’ve calmed down and rational thought returns. Then I am incredibly grateful for the calm patience of our loving Father. He never gets in a hurry. He never gets flustered. He has thoughts of us and plans for us that go so far beyond our current level of comprehension. Left unattended, my thoughts and plans would just create one big ole hot mess after another. His timing, His responses are perfect.

During our regular, consistent conversations with God, we need to go in expecting some wait time. God’s timetable is rarely as quick as ours. We want Him to use a microwave, when He’s actually got some nice coals smoldering under a stone oven. The outcome probably won’t be quick, but it surely will be good. With this in mind, it is so important that we learn to be diligent in our prayers.

  • There’s more than what meets the eye

Roots – even those for pine trees – don’t grow straight. One root has many attachments that you don’t see at first. Actually, much like an iceberg, what’s underneath the surface may be a whole lot bigger than what you can see. When God leads us to pray about some particular topic or character issue, it can seem like no big deal. So we pray. And expect immediate results. Which don’t come immediately. So we pray some more. Through it all, as we seek God and read His Word, learning and growing in the process, we begin to see that there was so much more to that issue than we ever imagined. Often there are smaller attachments that need dealing with as God grows our roots deeper in Him.

  • Dirt gets packed in over time

One of the things that makes cutting up tree roots so difficult is the accumulation of dirt, decades’ and decades’ worth of dirt. It packs in tightly and does not want to leave its cozy spot. But If you are going to successfully chop up the root ball, the dirt has to go. Our lives can get dirt-packed over time as well. Sometimes these are things we have done; others are things done to us. We need the cleansing power of Holy Spirit to lead us through to repentance, forgiveness and sanctification.

  • Stir up ants

Sometimes once you start chopping wood, you stir up tiny woodland creatures who are never happy to see you. They are grumpy and they bite. As we draw closer to God, we suddenly find ourselves on the enemy’s radar. Make no mistake. This is an all-out war. There can be physical manifestations of a spiritual battle. Our enemy is sneaky and stubborn and he wants you gone. However. Take a deep breath. This is a time for faith, not fear. 1 John 4:4 reminds us that “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”

  • Keep plugging away

Once you start swinging that prayer ax, you are eventually going to get tired. Don’t quit. Every stroke is one step closer to breakthrough. Sometimes praying the same thing more than once feels like a lack of faith. Actually quite the opposite is true; it shows faith not to quit. Even as we make that same request over and over and over, God is refining us, shaping us. Just like the man in Luke 11 who kept knocking on a neighbor’s door and eventually received the bread he sought – not because of their friendship – but because of his “shameless audacity”, we are admonished to ask, seek, and knock. And knock some more.

  • Know when to take a break

When I got to whaling away on those roots, I could tell my newly-developed form was beginning to slip. I was approaching exhaustion, but I had a goal and I was flat out determined to accomplish it. No. Matter. What. When the ax began to sink a little lower with each swing, however, I finally gave in and took a small break. Five minutes and some cool water gave me the boost I needed to finish strong(ish). Sometimes when we diligently apply ourselves to praying for a specific matter, we run out of gas, whether emotionally or spiritually. Our prayers become like chewing the same piece of gum long after the flavor is gone and our jaws are aching. It’s not a bad idea to take a break from that particular topic for a day or two, then you can resume when you are rested and refreshed. You may even need to ask for help. In both prayer and log chopping, we are certainly better together.

  • You need a shower 

After hard work, especially of the manual labor variety, you kinda stink. You need a long hot shower to wash away the grime and to relax your weary muscles. Similarly, after a particularly strenuous season of prayer or ministry, you need a break. Spending time alone with God in nature is an amazing way to recharge your batteries. Living in a coastal area, one of my favorite mini escapes is a walk on the beach: no prayer list, no agenda, just showing up and allowing the Father to nourish my soul. If there’s a sunset or sunrise included, that’s just gravy.

  • Weakness at the moment makes you stronger later

Swinging an ax for more than six seconds was difficult and awkward for me. The weight distribution is weird, and my puny upper body strength was quite apparent as that ax head landed anywhere except where I wanted it to. It took determination and focus; eventually my technique improved. The second time out things were better still. So it goes with prayer as well. Our first attempts at praying through a difficult time or learning to trust God can be equally as pitiful and awkward. We need to stick with it in spite of all that. We will learn a great deal along the way, and we will grow in the process if we don’t give up.

  • Blisters today = roasted marshmallows tomorrow

…or a house or a table or a bonfire. In prayer as in life, when any kind of skill is involved, whether learning to play the guitar or drive a car or do long division, we have to pay our dues up front. But that is more than okay. Eventually the results will come. Small successes, or even failures, today prepare us for the future.

  • All you can do is all you can do

Just because we pray about something, we are not guaranteed to get what we want -or what we are convinced at the time that we absolutely need. We like normalcy and order. We like things to make sense to us – using our own logic as a frame of reference. Neither God nor tree stumps work according to the rules we would create.

A.W. Tozer says, “We do not pray in order to persuade God to change His mind. Prayer is not an assault upon the reluctance of God, nor an effort to secure a suspension of His will for us or for those for whom we pray….God will never be other than Himself.”

Prayer is not about us turning the head of God with our clever words. Prayer is about relationship, about developing intimacy. It is, in its simplest form, a conversation aligning ourselves with Him, not the other way around.

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Prayer Ax Part 3 – FOCUS

As we continue comparing chopping wood to a daily time of prayer, today we turn our focus to, well, focus. Such a simple but important thing.

  • Random whacks here and there accomplish very little

My first attempts at chopping wood were rather pitiful. I was whaling away with great gusto, but you never would have known it to look at the log. There was about a three-foot span that bore the scars of my higgledy-piggedly swings. There was no discernable method to my madness, more like a beaver with ADD had happened by on his way to someplace else. Our prayers can be like that when their primary focus is to present a daily wish list to God: “Give me this. Do this for me. Here’s the plan, Lord. If you could make this happen, that’d be great.” Certainly our God is both able and willing to supply our every need, but if all we do is fling out orders in our prayers, we have sadly missed the point.

This reveals one of my concerns about the traditional prayer list. At any given time, these tend to be made up, I’d say about 95%, with sick people. Now does God care about sick people? Of course He does. We are admonished in James 5 to pray for the sick. When I am sick, I certainly hope that my friends will be praying for my healing. But that not the ONLY thing we are supposed to pray for and about. God is more concerned with our character than our comfort, and sometimes (though no one enjoys it at the time) it is through illness and adversity that God reveals things about Himself that we would otherwise miss.

A related issue I personally experience with an extensive prayer list is that I find it overwhelming and hard to focus when I look at two columns of bullet-pointed requests. They start to blur together in my mind and I find myself resorting to blanket statements, like, “Please heal all the sick people,” or “Bless all the needs listed here.” I simply do better with one or two specific needs to concentrate on. The other thing is that I am very forgetful. When someone asks me to pray for them, my best plan is to do so right at that moment. Even though my intentions are absolutely to intercede on their behalf, the six hours that pass before my regularly established prayer time will consist of thousand different thoughts. Will I remember that particular one? Maybe. Maybe not. It is easier for me to honor my promise if I do so right away. (These last two paragraphs are not intended as an attack on prayer lists. We cannot intercede for someone if we don’t know they need it. If prayer lists are meaningful to you, by all means use them. These are merely concerns based on my own personal struggles with using them effectively.)

  • It is not necessary to chip up the entire log

Once I finally got that ax sort of headed in the right direction and there were actual wood chips flying through the air, I started to feel pretty good about my lumberjack skills. Then I paused to take a look at my portion of the tree. Hmmm. Now if I had intended to create a dugout canoe, I’d have been well on my way. Only I was indeed NOT trying to make a canoe. I wanted to turn the giant root ball into smaller, burnable pieces. What I needed, and so obviously lacked, was focus.

Each night before we go to sleep, Jeff and I pray together. Jeff is a concise kind of guy. He can say all he needs to say in about five minute. I, however, love words. Sometimes I will catch myself going on and on about every little thing you can possibly imagine. It pops into my mind and I pray about it. He and God both must wonder sometimes if this ADD chick (not beaver) will ever get to the point.

One of the things that I’ve found helpful is a mental outline to keep me on track. Certainly the “Lord’s Prayer” gives us a structure to follow, and an acronym like ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication – aka requests for yourself and others) makes it easier to stay focused.

  • Lock in and don’t let up

When swinging an ax, where you look is what you hit. At different seasons of our lives, God will reveal certain things we need to turn our attention toward, whether a character trait we need to develop, or preparation for a new job, or a relationship that needs attention of some kind. In our daily, concentrated times of prayer, we turn our hearts to these matters regularly and consistently. We speak to God then listen to what He has to say to us on these matters. This can take time. Lots and lots of time in some situations.

  • Have a plan, but don’t hesitate to try something a bit unconventional 

I love order. I love having and executing a well-made plan. But one thing I learned from 20+ years in a middle school classroom is that while a plan is a great place to start, don’t think for one minute that you will be able to follow it to the letter every single day. Some days you just have to toss the script. In the classroom, it seemed like those were often the golden days when real learning took place.

While I was inadvertently creating that dugout canoe, I’d been chopping away from the same position. I moved my feet over just a few inches and took a left-handed swing. Man! What a difference! Even though this was definitely not playing to my strength, attacking from another angle gave me a fresh perspective on what I was doing. When it feels like our prayers have become stale, sometimes we need to mix it up a little bit, whether that means ditching the normal routine, going to a different location, speaking out loud, or adding a musical soundtrack in the background. Even strategic prayer can become rote, and our minds disengage. Every so often, we just need something new.

  • Learn from others

Jeff realized I was making that canoe a few minutes before I did, but he was smart enough to wait. When the ax started gliding over the top instead of removing chips of wood, I stopped and cocked my head to one side, as I do when I’m thinking. He asked if I wanted some help (SUCH a very wise man!) and I gladly accepted his offer. He showed me how to make a small V that led to a point of ever-thinning wood. Ohhhh. Now I get it!

There is so much we can learn about prayer from other people. There is no reason for us to try and reinvent the wheel. We have examples in the Bible from great pray-ers like David and Daniel and Solomon, we have books written by mighty people of faith over the last few centuries, we have people in our churches and circle of friends who just seem to know how to talk to God, and as Romans 8:26 reminds us, we also have the promised Holy Spirit who will lead us in our times of prayer.

  • Generic wishy-washy prayers get the same result

If we are not careful, a daily and consistent time of anything, including prayer, can fall into a rut. Just like swinging the ax all willy-nilly does nothing but waste my time and effort, so too can a half-hearted time of prayer. Our daily communication with God should be specifically targeted and deeply personal.

  • Not quick, but very effective

It sure would be a whole lot quicker to lop up those trees with a chainsaw, and sometimes that is exactly what we do. Other times, however, it is the slow work done by hand that brings great satisfaction. When we pray each day, our intent should not be to get it over with as quickly as possible. Sometimes God is gracious and answers our prayers right away. More than likely, however, it takes time. Lots of time. More time than we would prefer. But in the end, as we look back, we can see the incredible value of the leisurely pace. After all, this isn’t about getting what we want when we want it. It’s about developing a relationship with our Father and growing into the likeness of His image.

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Just as a quick aside, my two favorite books on the subject of prayer are The Circle Maker by Mark Batterton and Moving Mountains by John Eldredge. Both revolutionized my personal times of prayer.

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