He Sees, He Hears, He Cares

I’m embarrassed to even say this, but when trouble hits, my first instinct is panic. I immediately start trying to figure out what I need to do: How can I fix this? How can I do damage control? What is my best course of action? I am quite sure that in those moments my heavenly Father has a holy smirk on His face, waiting for me to start breathing again. Then His still, small voice speaks, “Look to Me.”

In Psalm 10, David is having one of those moments. Just as a bit of background, Psalms 9 and 10 may have originally been a single acrostic poem using successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In the Septuagint, a Greek version of Hebrew scriptures dating back to 300 BC, they are one psalm. What follows are some observations as we look a little closer at the second half of this work.

Psalm 10 begins with a plea: “Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” And haven’t we all felt that way at one time or another? The world around us seems to be in chaos. We’re just ambling along, minding our own business, then the next thing we know, the unthinkable happens. Maybe it’s a general sense of unrest in or nation, a tornado ripping through a nearby town, or news of a tragic automobile accident claiming the lives of innocent children. Or maybe it’s something much more personal: a bad report from the doctor or a falling out with a friend. We can look around at circumstances and feel hurt, confused, abandoned. That’s when the panic sets in. Like I am much inclined to do, David follows his question up with a bit of a rant. For verses 2-11, he describes the lying, conniving, deceitfulness of the wicked. They are so full of themselves and their scheming that they don’t consider even God can stop their onslaught against the weak. And to be perfectly honest, it really does look that way sometimes.

But God…

What we see with our eyes is not the entire story. We have a Father Who is at work behind the scenes, orchestrating events in ways that we never could.

Beginning with verse 12, David comes up for air. He seeks the Lord’s help. He asks God to rise and lift up His hand in defense of the helpless.

Verses 14 – 18 are words of confirmation and celebration. David encourages himself in the Lord, and in doing so reminds all of us Who God is. Let’s break this down a little, paying careful attention to the verbs in each verse.

Psalms 10: 14, 16-18 NIV (emphasis added)

Verse 14

14 But you, God, seethe trouble of the afflicted; you consider their grief and take it in hand. The victims commit themselves to you; you are the helper of the fatherless.

God sees me. In a world full of billions of people, it is so easy to feel invisible, inconsequential, forgotten. Yet from among the masses, the Creator of the universe sees ME. That’s hard to wrap my mind around sometimes, but what an amazing truth!

He considers our grief. Not only does He have a visual on us, but our Father also cares deeply about the things we are experiencing. That doesn’t mean that everything will always go our way or that as followers of Christ we are somehow exempt from the troubles of life. What it does mean is that God is ultimately in control. He will use those tough seasons to strengthen our character and to develop intimacy in our relationship with Him.

Verse 15

15 Break the arm of the wicked man; call the evildoer to account for his wickedness that would not otherwise be found out.

In verse 15, David asks God to break the arm of the wicked man. I cannot help but think there is a connection here: the hand of God breaking the arm of the evildoer, stopping him in his tracks and thereby calling him into account in a way that would never be found out otherwise. That appendage with which the wicked man has been strong-arming the innocent is broken; it is now a liability to him rather than a source of strength. With every attempted move, there is incredible pain for this man. With proper setting, care, and time there can be healing. In the waiting, there will be remembrances of how the break occurred, and perhaps, one would hope, the healing will be true and complete and the wicked man will think twice before doing such things again.

Verse 16

16 The Lord is King for ever and ever; the nations will perish from his land.

This verse is a reminder of Who God is. He is King, not just for a day, decade, or even a dynasty. He is King forever and ever, for time without end. As for the nations, they come and go. Archeologist are continually discovering sites where once-strong civilizations lived and flourished, but then inexplicably disappeared. Only the kingdom of God will endure for all of time and eternity, and our Lord is its one true King. His authority is without limit or end. We can trust that Who He has been in the past, He still is today, and will continue to be so – far beyond our very finite lifetimes here on planet earth.

Verses 17-18

17 You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,
18 defending the fatherless and the oppressed, so that mere earthly mortals will never again strike terror.

These are probably my favorite verses in Psalm 10. They are brimming over with hope. Our Father hears our desires. This gives me comfort because sometimes I feel so conflicted on the inside that I don’t even know how to vocalize what I really want or need. There’s no need to worry though. Romans 8 tells us that when we don’t know how to pray, Holy Spirit intercedes for us. That’s quite an advocate!

Not only does the Lord hear, He listens. And there is a huge difference, as you well know if you’ve ever been talking to someone and they start “uh-huh”ing you. Their ears hear the words but their minds are obviously elsewhere. It makes us feel bad – unimportant and uninteresting – when this happens. Here we can take comfort, however, because we can know with absolute certainty that God is listening to what we are saying. Even when our words come out backwards, He gets us.

God encourages us. This can come in a myriad of forms. Sometimes an unexpected check comes in the mail when we desperately need it, or perhaps we get the opportunity to work overtime to help cover an unforeseen expense. Maybe you run into an old friend and they say something you really need to hear at just the moment you need to hear it. Or when we read Scripture and a verse that we’ve read dozens of times literally leaps off the page at us, speaking directly to our situation. Then there those amazing little happenings that one of my friends calls “God winks”. These occur when you experience something tangible that, even though no one else would see it that way, you recognize as special little gift from the Father, intended just for you. One of my most vivid remembrances of God’s encouragement happened several years ago. I was having a hard time with some things so I decided to spend a day with God, walking on the beach. After traversing a couple miles from the pier to the lighthouse, I sat down on a swing, thankful for the solitude to let all that was churning inside me come gushing out in loud, salty sobs. When I calmed my breathing and dried my tears, an incredible sense of calm came over me. Then I caught a very distinct whiff of gardenias in the air. Wait. Gardenias?? No matter what time of year, this would have encouraged me since gardenias are one of my all-time favorite scents. However, this was in winter on a beach, surrounded by blustery winds and waves and brown sea oats. Intrigued but caught off guard, I searched the area. There was nothing remotely green around, much less gardenias. I started crying again, completely overwhelmed by the love of God.

The psalm ends by reminding us that God defends the fatherless and oppressed. When we have nowhere else to turn, we can rest assured in the goodness of God. Sometimes we have misconceptions of who God actually is. We can think He is out to get us. We can see Him as a cosmic Santa Claus. We can consider Him a stodgy, out-of-touch grandfather. I’m not quite sure why we think of Him as such. God is ageless, but He is not old. In fact, none of these descriptions is accurate. There are many names for God used in Scripture, each pointing to a distinct character trait. Here we see He is Defender. He is Warrior. He is Mighty to Save. He is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. We have no need to fear what mere mortals might try to do to us. Whatever happens to us is first filtered through His hands, through the permissive will of the One who loved us first and always. In the face of adversity, as we seek His face and align ourselves to His heart, we need only be still. It is He Who fights for us.

In recent days, my mantra reminding me of the goodness and faithfulness of God has become:

He sees, He hears, He cares.

To that I will add:

He encourages, He defends.

I will look to Him. And I will be still, safe in His arms.

Stained Glass Lives: Psalms 7

Lately I have been enjoying – and drawing strength from – a leisurely stroll through the book of Psalms. It is amazing how words written thousands of years ago by a man very different from me in his culture and experiences can shed light and breathe life into my modern circumstances.

This section of Psalms has really hit home with me. David speaks a great deal about needing refuge, a safe place to hide, a place where he can be protected and secure. I get that. Man, do I ever get that. Sometimes the tenants of our faith can be so simple, so easy to spout out when “someone else” is experiencing trouble or grief or hardship. But when the roles reverse and it’s our trouble, our grief, our hardship. Well, now; that’s a different matter entirely.  Then all the cute catch-phrases suddenly seem like just another Hallmark card. It’s like we are starving to death and someone offers us a giant bag of cotton candy when what we need instead is something solid and substantial. What’s a girl (or guy) to do? Turn to Scripture – more importantly, we need to turn to the Holy God who gives His backing, His authority, to these written words.

Verse 1

1) Lord my God, I take refuge in you; save and deliver me from all who pursue me

David jumps right in with a plea for help. He addresses God as Lord, recognizing his subservience to the real King. Not only does David acknowledge the sovereignty of God, he also establishes that their relationship is personal. Yahweh is not just a God out there somewhere: He and David belong to each other. And this changes everything. There is a President in the United States. He has responsibility for us as a nation, but it’s not like President Trump and I have a personal relationship. I can’t exactly call him up and ask for a favor. (Please don’t miss everything else by latching onto the pro/con Trump train. It’s just an example.) But my Father is an entirely different story. Like David, I can go to Him in my distress and ask for help. He is my refuge, my safe place. It is He who saves me, who delivers me from those who pursue me.

Although he had been anointed as Israel’s next leader, David spent many years being chased down by King Saul in a dangerous and very literal game of cat and mouse. I don’t think I’ve ever understood before what it feels like to be pursued in this way. I’m sure that there are people out there who don’t like me very much. I’m not sure what their problem is, but I am sure that these people do exist. (:P) In all seriousness, while I can be pretty sassy,  I’m basically a non-confrontational kind of gal. I’d rather look for a solution than a fight. But sometimes fights find you whether you’re looking for them or not. And so it has been. Through the times of incredible difficulty, the overwhelming love of friends and the Father has been such a comfort. There were times I needed to hide, to allow myself the luxury of a safe place to fall part. My troubling times have certainly been different from David’s, but I do understand the cry of his heart.

Verse 9

9) Bring to an end the violence of the wicked and make the righteous secure – you, the righteous God who probes minds and hearts

Yeah. I’ve prayed this. Often several times a day. I’ve got to be honest with you. David’s words in this Psalm are quite strong. He asks for God to end the violence of wicked men and to uphold the righteous. Look at David’s word choice here – the righteous God, who probes our hearts and minds, makes the righteous secure. Of course I’d love to believe that I am righteous, because surely the world revolves around me, right? But it doesn’t work that way. I need to probe my own heart and mind. Am I righteous? What makes me any better than this other person that I have labeled as wicked? At the risk of opening an incredibly large theological can of worms, the simple answer is Jesus. When I become a dedicated Christ-follower, I am granted the righteousness of God. I am still going to mess up, regularly, I’m afraid. But the blood of Jesus has covered the sins I’ve committed in the past and the ones I haven’t even gotten around to doing yet. This is not a license to sin, but rather a relationship to be fostered.

Verse 10

10) My shield is God Most High, who saves the upright in heart

As a soldier, David uses a lot of military metaphors in his writing, like I might be inclined to use teaching or running or parenting. This flowed out of who he was. Certainly I have never been in the throes of battle, never had to duck behind a wall while projectiles were hurled my way. The arrows of my battle have been words aimed at my heart and mind. The impact they make may not be visible, yet they leave gaping wounds.

This verse creates a strong mental picture: Two opposing armies face each other. The tock and swish of flying arrows. The cries of the injured. The muffled last breath of the direct hit. Metal shields glistening in the sun, offering protection, security. David’s shield is not made of wood and leather, or even iron. His shield is God Most High, the One who saves the upright in heart.

Once again, this begs the question, does this mean me? Can I number myself among the upright in heart? As a follower of Christ, I can. I am delivered, not because of my shiny external image and resume’ of good deeds, but because of Jesus! An honest inspection of my life reveals that, no matter how much I try to appear so, I am not a “good person”. What I am is imperfect, broken, shattered. The good news is, when I gather those shattered pieces of my life and place them in the hands of the Father, He takes them and He transforms me. He doesn’t just put me back together as I once was. He creates something new, something magnificent, something I never was before. At His touch, this pile of broken glass, once suitable only for the rubbish heap, is now an exquisite work of art. As the light of His Son shines through me, His beauty, His righteousness is reflected in my life.

I am a firm believer in the eternal security of the believer. Once I place my faith and trust in God, my relationship with Him is sealed forever in Christ Jesus. The fellowship we experience, however, can be impacted by unconfessed sin in my life. Like dirt on a window must be cleaned away in order for the light to shine through unhindered, we must, as one of my pastor friends states it, “keep short sin accounts.”  In this way, righteousness (maintaining a right relationship with God) is a continuous process.

Verse 17

17) I will give thanks to the Lord because of his righteousness; I will sing the praises of the name of the Lord Most High.

David begins and ends this psalm with the goodness and power of God. Whether or not he has already received his deliverance, David gives thanks. It is the righteousness of God that makes all the difference, so much so that David bursts into song.

Sunlight coming through a window is a mere fraction of the power and energy of our universe’s most important star. Even when it rains, we know the sun is there, sending forth its rays of warmth and light. Similarly, in our daily lives we can catch small glimpses into the boundless heart of the Father. When times of trouble come, we can know that He is always there.

The righteousness of God is eternal, infinite, unchanging. He is good, and I am His.

That, my friends, is a reason to sing!

~~~~~~~

Image Credit: http://elderberry.blogspot.com/2016/05/may-2-2016-reflecting-gods-light.html

Our Place of Refuge: Psalm 5

Trouble happens. Whether we like it or not, this is one of those undeniable truths of life on planet earth. Storms come, literally and figuratively. Whole communities get wiped out by wildfires, loved ones get sick and eventually pass away, our babies grow up and move away, political scandals abound. It would be easy, so very easy, to get disheartened by such things. But, God. In the middle of all this turmoil and sadness and grief, we can have hope. We can have peace. We can cast our eyes beyond our circumstances and onto the God who loves us. Lately I’ve been doing a slow stroll through the book of Psalms. Today I’ll be sharing some thoughts and observations from the reading of Psalm 5.

Psalm 5 NIV selected verses

2) Hear my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray.

The day after I read this Psalm my family was to attend a very important meeting. We had prepared as best we knew how. Still, we were nervous and frustrated about things far beyond our control, and honestly, more than a little scared. I believe that our times of greatest desperation can work for our good when they drive us to the feet of the Father. When I have no idea where to turn, Jesus is the best place to start. As I read David’s words, I knew that he knew the despondency I was feeling (and then some). He needed help. He needed his Father.

It’s interesting to me that here David addresses God as “my King.” David, of course, had been anointed as king but had not yet assumed that role. Maybe, like me, he knew what a real dork he was on the inside. David knew the real king in Israel would always be Yahweh, regardless of which man was declared leader. It was to Him that David cried out for help.

That word “cry” got my attention as well. That word carries a connotation of desperation. It’s more than simply stating a need or request. There is an unmistakable intensity behind the words: “I need help and I need it NOW!”

3) In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.

One of the things that gets my day off to a great start is to kiss Jeff good morning. On days when one of us is away or working, I feel the weight of that absence. I also like to have a few minutes of quiet, dedicated time with God in the mornings. It sets the tone for the rest of my day. Now I must admit that there are days, sometimes weeks, when my Quiet Time becomes an activity to be checked off the day’s agenda. I show up but I’m not fully engaged. But that’s another topic for another day. Meeting with my Father in the morning changes the trajectory of my entire day. His Word speaks truth into my heart. I may not be, but God is always, always fully engaged in our conversation (aka prayer). He hears the words I speak and the ones I don’t know how to express. I can rest secure in the knowledge that He has heard me and that He is at work – often behind the scenes in ways I could never imagine. I wait expectantly for Him to move. This does not mean that I get everything that I want when I want it. Actually, that’s almost never happened. But what I do get is what I need. And it’s better, so much better.

7-8) But I, by your great love, can come into your house; in reverence I bow down toward your holy temple. Lead me, LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies – make your way straight before me.

Since this verse begins with a “but”, we can know that something significant was stated in verses 4-6. In this case David talks about wicked, arrogant, bloodthirsty, and deceitful men. We want to make a point of not being like these people because God detests and destroys them. We do not want to be an enemy of God!

Just look at the perspective here. David is allowed to enter into the presence of a holy God, not because he is such a wonderful guy, but because God has graciously allowed him in. Notice how David’s respect and affection are reflected the words he uses to refer to his Father: “Your great love”, “Your house”, “Your holy temple”, “Your righteousness”, “Your way”. David is clearly acknowledging the supremacy of the Father. Notice, too, David’s response to that: “In reverence I bow.” He then asks God to lead him and make His way straight before him. To me, this says, “You are God and I am not. Please show me which way to go. I’ll follow Your lead.” In this exchange, it is clear that God is the authority, the source of wisdom and strength. Too many times I approach God in prayer like I’m the coach giving instructions to my star quarterback: “All right, Lord, here’s what we’re gonna do. Now get out there and make it happen!” How arrogant of me! I forget that I’m just the waterboy.

I can lean hard on the goodness of God, but it is important – essential – that I continually check my own heart.

11-12) But let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may rejoice in you. Surely, LORD, you bless the righteous; you surround them with your favor as with a shield.

Here’s another “but” so we know what the previous verses dealt with those malicious, lying people, calling their throats “open graves”, and entreating God to banish them for their rebellion against Him.

In these verses I see three snapshots of progressive intimacy with God:

First, He is our refuge. This is like a city set apart from the dangerous territory that surrounds it. Inside its walls I can let my guard down. Not only that, I can sing for joy. Trouble and those previously mentioned evil people still exist, but here I am completely safe.

Second, He is our protection. The city has a King. The city is safe because of the authority and provision of the King. Because I love Him, I can rejoice. This is what our times of corporate worship are designed for – to clap and dance and sing, giving honor to the One we love.

Third, we are blessed. This is where things get really good. We are inside the walls of a city, protected by the King, and we have the honor of a personal relationship with Him. We are surrounded with His favor as a shield. Read that again: we are surrounded with His favor as a shield. Eventually we will have to face whatever lies outside the walls of the city. We can’t carry its walls with us everywhere we go, but the Lord of Hosts goes with us. We can stand secure behind His shield. The flaming arrows may come our way but His shield is impenetrable, and it surrounds us on all sides – protecting from the threats we expect and the ones that totally catch us off guard. We are safe. We are blessed.

If I could add one element of caution here, it would be not to assume that we in all ways and in every circumstance understand the mind of God. He is mighty and holy and wise far beyond our ability to understand – or to manipulate. We do not get to tell Him what to do and how things should go. Reading a psalm, even one as encouraging as this, does not mean that we can claim it as our own at all times and in all situations. God has purposes and methods that we will never fully comprehend. Difficulties will come into all of our lives. Being a Christ follower in no way suggests that we will never have troubles and that life will be all rainbows and unicorns.

What we do have in the middle of life’s struggles is Hope. Remember that important meeting my family had to attend? Nothing – and I do mean NOTHING – went like we expected. In fact, we ended up rearranging our schedules and driving several hours for a meeting that never took place. Talk about frustrating! But there is always more to the story. While we waited, we were able to have a conversation with one person, who then connected us to a second person. Had the meeting proceeded as planned, we would not have had that conversation and we never would have met the second person, who is an absolute game-changer in our particular situation. One of the things I’m learning about God is that He is always at work in our lives, in the things we see and the things we don’t. He has orchestrated events that are pretty much the opposite of what I expect to happen, yet in the end I see that this is actually the most perfect way for things to go.

As Christ followers, we are continually surrounded by the shield of His favor. The thing is, we can’t stand ten feet away and expect a shield to protect us. In order to be protected by someone’s shield, we have to get close. Really close. That, I believe, reflects what God wants most from us – our devoted trust and dependence, our willing response to His deep, deep love. The arrows will come our way, but they are no match for our King.

~~~~~

Photo credit: thehopeanchor.co.uk (Bodium castle)

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.