Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Psalm 25: Hope

Reading for today:  Psalm 25

You know I'm a fan of psalms set to music.  Sometimes the melodies and the rhythms so capture the heart of the psalmists prayer that you not only think about the lyrics, but you actually sense the joy or the pain or the anguish the psalmist is singing about.

And sometimes it doesn't work out that way.  Sometimes the melodies and the rhythms totally miss the point of the psalm.  

Back in the 70s, we used to sing a song set to words from Psalm 25.  It was a happy song, and honestly a little monotonous.  So we clapped and sang it pretty fast.  And we totally missed David's heart on this one.  

And it's a shame because this psalm, written while David is feeling "lonely and afflicted" (verse 16) captures David's longing for God's presence and offers a declaration of trust.  

It makes sense to read the psalm from beginning to end, where David sings about God's character and his promises to those who trust him, but it's important not to miss the last part of the chapter.  This is where David sings about what's going on in his life at this time.  

Take a look at verses 17-22.  Here's my paraphrase of this passage:
Things just keep getting worse, God.  Help me!  
Do you see what's going on?  Do you see my pain?  Do you see how my enemies hate me?  
No one cares.  Please protect me . . . guard my life. 
Is this punishment for my sin?  Please forgive me.  I only want to serve you . . . 
Please, God, hear me.  Guard me.  Rescue me.  
Please do not shame me.  
My hope is in you.  Because without you, there is no hope.  

And so David lifts up his soul to the one who sees him, who loves him, who protects him, who guides him, who forgives him.  It's in his distress that he sings this song:

To you, and you alone, O Lord, do I lift up my soul, do I surrender my entire being.
I trust you to do what's right. I place my life, my future, in your hands.
I know I'm not perfect, but my heart longs to please you.  Forgive the sins of my youth.  Forgive my sins now.  You are merciful and good.  Teach me your ways.  Guide me in your truth.  
You are loving and faithful.  
Rescue me.  Redeem the brokenness in my life.  
Do not let me be put to shame.  
I want to bring glory to you.  
My eyes are fixed on you.  
For you are my God, my Savior, and you are my hope.  My only hope.  
Our only hope.
The One who takes the messiness of our lives and redeems it.  
The One who forgives us.  Leads us.  Instructs us.  
The One who hears us.  

No one whose hope is in Him will ever be put to shame.  

Monday, September 27, 2010

Psalm 23: Apparently I need a shepherd.

I like to figure things out myself.  I listen to what others are doing.  I read.  I do research.  And then I determine what seems to be the best possible solution to any problem or task.  Sometimes I ask for advice.

Sometimes, there are no apparent solutions, no matter how hard I look, no matter how many sources I check, no matter how much time I spend thinking about the situation.  And even if I ask for advice, I know I'll ultimately have to make the decision myself.

At that point, the obvious next step is to ask Jesus what to do.  Well, really it would be better to talk to him first.  But I forget.  Because I think I can figure things out on my own.  And I don't always ask for God's help because I get spinning and basically can't stop thinking about things and testing different potential solutions.  And I literally can't stop the ideas swirling around in my head.

And then, at night sometimes, I wake up and I just can't sleep.  I try to pray then, but I can't still my mind.  So I try to think of Scripture to hang on to.

God's Word is an anchor.   It steadies me.  It settles my thoughts.  And so I mentally sift through the Scriptures I've memorized, looking for the one that stills my heart.

I often land on Psalm 23.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures, 
       he leads me beside quiet waters,

  he restores my soul. 
       He guides me in paths of righteousness 
       for his name's sake.

 Even though I walk 
       through the valley of the shadow of death, 
       I will fear no evil, 
       for you are with me; 
       your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

The familiarity of this passage--we memorize it, recite it, sing it--can take away the powerful message.  God provides for us, he leads us beside quiet waters, he restores our souls, he guides us.  We travels with us when we walk through difficult situations, and we don't have to be afraid.  Even the rod and staff, instruments of discipline, protect us and comfort us.

And so, apparently, I need a shepherd.  I need God's provision. I need help finding quiet waters--as opposed to the stormy ones I often encounter.  I need to rest in green pastures instead of trying to solve my own problems all the time.  I need restoration because my soul is often troubled.  I need a guide.  Sometimes I will travel through "the valley of the shadow of death," but I don't have to be afraid because God is with me.  And sometimes I wander off, and I need a rod and a staff to keep me close to the shepherd, who has my best interests in mind.  Apparently I need a shepherd.

This passage includes a promise, and sometimes I forget this part:

You prepare a table before me 
       in the presence of my enemies. 
       You anoint my head with oil; 
       my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and love will follow me 
       all the days of my life, 
       and I will dwell in the house of the LORD 
A lot of time I worry because I think I actually need to figure out what to do next.  I think the worst things will happen to me because, well, I don't deserve good things.  And here's the deal.   God has prepared a feast for me.  I just don't see it yet.  David, no matter what he goes through, remembers that God's promises are true.  "Surely goodness and love" or mercy "will follow me all the days of my life."

Ah.  I'm so glad I have a shepherd.  I really do need him.  

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Psalm 19: Knowing God

The Hale-Bopp comet.  Amazing.  Breathtaking.  Intriguing.

We were doing an early morning paper route in those days, and we saw it nearly every morning.  And at 4:00 in the morning, with city lights dimmed, we saw shooting stars and planets and constellations set against the black sky.  We probably would have preferred to still be sleeping, we thanked God for this glimpse into creation.

I started memorizing Psalm 19 then:
The heavens declare the glory of God.  The skies proclaim the work of his hands. 
Day after day they pour forth speech.  Night after night they display knowledge.  
There's no speech or language where their voice is not heart.
Their voice goes out into all the earth and their words to the end of the world.  
Obviously, the night sky is silent, but creation speaks.  And like music, sometimes it speaks more clearly than words, which are limited in their scope.

And so vastness of the sky, with the brilliance of the skies, and glimpse of other worlds, speaks to God's power, his glory, his mystery.  Our telescopes open windows into celestial realms, but even though we can see further and further, we have not reached the end of the heavens.  It is that enormous.  We can't even fathom it's size.

And so we know God through his creation if we take the time to really look and see, allowing the Holy Spirit speak to us.

But David doesn't stop there.  We also know God through his Word.

"The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the statues of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple."

It's important to remember--most people couldn't read in those days.  They listened intently to the words of Scripture, over and over, in order to memorize as much as they could.

We can read now and so we tend to let the words stay on the pages.  But if we really want revival of the soul, if we really want to become wise, we want to internalize those words in our souls, in our psyche, so that they speak to us when we're not looking at the words on  a page.

These words are much more precious than gold; they are sweeter than honey.  Why not let them seep into our  hearts, in our minds, in our consciousness and our unconsciousness?  In keeping these words, there is great reward.

I grew up in church.  I knew doctrine, and I knew stories.  I could recite Scripture.  But I never took the time to know God.  I never took the time to gaze on creation and let the Holy Spirit speak to me.  I never took the time to meditate on Scripture, allowing it to influence my deepest thoughts.

Even now, I tend to look past the sky, past the trees, past the mountains.  I tend to read the words on the page and move on.

I want to slow down.  I want to know God.
I can't resist adding David's closing prayer as I close this entry.  It's a prayer for everyday and every blog post.  Or at least it should be.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight.
O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  

Psalm 17-18: Celebration

Sometimes we forget to celebrate when God answers prayers.  On Thursday, I got an email with a job offer, and instead of thanking God, instead of responding in amazement, I'm wondering if this is really something I want to do.

For the record, I got a job rating college assessment tests, the kind that determine which writing class you get into when you start school.  I don't know much about the job.  I applied online, I got "approved" online, and I send all my documents to New Jersey.  At that point, I'll get training online and work online.  It's all very weird, and I'm a little cautious, wondering what if it doesn't work out, and do I really want to read timed essays for four-hour blocks?

Apparently I'm sort of a pessimist, and this kind of attitude completely sucks the joy out of living.  Faced with difficulty, I first go into problem-solving mode.  And then, if I can't figure out a solution, I sort of wither.  Or go into denial--everything will work out.

I think I want to be more like David.  I want to commit myself to prayer and worship with thanksgiving and praise.

Take a look at Psalm 17.  I don't know what's going on exactly, but David's under attack again, and he goes straight to God.  "Hear my righteous plea," he says, "listen to my cry."

He builds a case for deliverance:  I'm committed to you and you alone.  I know you'll answer me and show me the wonder of your love.  Protect me.  Save me.  Rescue me.

David's confidence in God's ultimate answer doesn't lead to complacency.  He doesn't sit back and say, well, everything's going to work out fine because God's got my back.  No, pleads with God--and at the same time he worships him, affirming God's greatness.  "You still the hunger of those you cherish," he prays.  You meet the needs of those you love, those who love you.

And then, in Psalm 18, when God has answered his prayer, he practically dances.  Who knows?  David was definitely known for his dancing, and this is music.

"I love you, O Lord, my strength.  You are my rock, my fortress, my deliverer, my refuge, my shield, my salvation."  (18:1-2)

I can trust you.  You never change.  You are the source of my strength.  You always come through.

And then he tells the story of God's deliverance.  In detail.  He doesn't hold back just in case the enemy returns.  Enemies return.  That's a fact of life.  But David celebrates God's victory now, trusting God to deliver him again.  And again.  And again.

And so he declares God's faithfulness.
As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the Lord is flawless.  He is a shield . . .
For who is God besides the Lord? And who is the Rock except our God?
It is God who arms me with strength and makes my perfect. 
He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to stand on the heights.
He trains my hands for battle . . .
God was faithful then.  He will be faithful in the future.
No withering here.  No complacency.  No pessimism.

Not that David doesn't go there from time to time, and he knows that, but knowing his own weakness doesn't stop him from rejoicing in God's strength.

Right now he clearly sees who God is, his power and might, and right now he declares God's holiness.

Give us eyes to see, Lord, and hearts to worship you for who you are.
Give us the courage to pray for everything.
Thank you for your answers.

And thank you for the job.  I'm not jumping up and down, but I'm thankful.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Psalm 15-16: Earthquakes

Psalm 15-16

Confession time.  Sometimes I skim over certain psalms.  Maybe they don't connect to me.  Like if I'm super happy, some of the psalms are kind of depressing.  And sometimes if they are just filled with praise, and I'm feeling abandoned by God, I basically don't feel like celebrating.

I pick and choose my music by the way I feel, and the psalms are essentially songs, so I don't feel too bad about this.  On the other hand, this is God's Word, and the little voice in the back of my head tells me it's all good and maybe I shouldn't be so choosy about which parts I want to read.  It is what it is, and maybe when I'm more mature, I won't be so particular.

And then sometimes, when I've read the psalm many, many, many times in the past, I think to myself, yeah, I got this one.  So I skim it and move on.

I almost did that this time.

Psalm 15 asks, "Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?"
In other words, who gets to live in your presence?  Or who gets to go to heaven?

"He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, and who speaks the truth from his heart and has no slander on his tongue, who does his neighbor no wrong, and casts no slur on his fellowman . . ."

And the list goes on.
Prompted by one of Pastor Darrel's sermons, I did a study on "blameless" a while back.  Obviously, none of us are without blame.  Not all the time.  And so, as I recall from the study, blameless doesn't mean perfect, but more like your heart longs for righteousness, and you seek after God.  As a result, you are growing increasingly like Jesus.

Psalm 15 is short, and so I moved on.

Psalm 16 begins with a prayer.  "Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge."
I know this one pretty well too.  At one point, I think I memorized most of it because so many parts spoke to me.  And so I slowed down a little bit, remembering the time in my life when I meditated on this psalm frequently.

I especially like verses 7-8.  Verse 7 reads:  I will praise the Lord who counsels me, even at night my heart instructs me.

I love that the Holy Spirit speaks to us, counsels us, guides us, comforts us.  I love that sometimes, the Lord wakes us in the night, when we are relaxed and open to his voice, and gives us insight into relationships and circumstances.  Sometimes we even receive instruction in our dreams.  (Not all dreams are useful for this, and everything has to stand up against Scripture!)

I memorized verse 8 too:  I have set the Lord always before me.  Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.

. . . I will not be shaken.
The world can go to pieces, but I will cling to the Lord.  I will be steadfast. The world may shake, but I will not question his goodness.  I will worship him regardless of the circumstances.

I love the images evoked by this phrase.

That's when I realized that chapter 15 includes the same phrase: ". . . will never be shaken."
In that passage, it's the guy whose life is blameless who will never be shaken.

And I started to wonder, what did David mean by "never be shaken"?  After all, the Jews (and others) during this time period believed that sickness and other calamities indicated God's judgment.  If you're familiar with the book of Job, you remember that all Job's friends assumed the loss of his wealth, his children, and his health meant he had sinned.  They couldn't see into heaven's conversations.

So was David saying that if we're blameless, God will protect us from negative circumstances?

We like to think that if we do everything we're supposed to, our children won't get sick, everything we do will be blessed, and we'll live to be 120.  (And be healthy the entire time.)

That's not the way life works out most of the time.  Not for us.  Not for David.

No matter how blameless we live, no matter how focused we are on seeking the Lord, the world is filled with sin.  It's broken.  It's cracked.

And just as the fault lines beneath the earth's surface produce tremendous earthquakes, rattling everything we see, the brokenness in the world causes earthquakes in our lives and the lives of people around us.

In Haiti, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake destroyed structures, killed more than 200,000 people, injured 300,000, and left one million people homeless.  A month later, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck Chile, and only 300 people died.

That's still a lot of people, but you have to wonder why an earthquake that was more than 500 times stronger only killed one-tenth as many people.

The New York Times notes that the most powerful earthquake ever recorded, a 9.5-magnitude quake, happened in Chile in spring 1960.  That earthquake killed nearly 2,000 people, left more than two million homeless, and set off a series of deadly tsunamis that killed people as far away as Japan and Hawaii.

It also served as a warning to officials and residents in the region that they should be prepared for future earthquakes, and in 1985, Chile established strict building codes that ultimately protected its citizens from many of the effects of this more recent quake.

The BBC describes those codes this way:

“The idea is that buildings are held up by reinforced concrete columns, which are strengthened by a steel frame. Reinforced concrete beams are joined onto the columns to make floors and the roof. If there is an earthquake, the idea is that the concrete on the beams should break near the end, which dissipates a lot of the energy of the earthquake, but that the steel reinforcement should survive and the columns should stay standing, which means the building will stay upright."
Honestly, I don't know what all that means in terms of building, but I think this analogy helps us understand what David means in Psalm 15 and 16 when he says he "will not be shaken."

When we set the Lord before us, when we make it our goal to worship him and walk with him, as David describes in 16:8, our hearts become quake-resistant.  The ground beneath us make shake, but we stay standing.

What earthquakes have you experienced?  Were you prepared?
Are you ready for the  next big one?

Monday, September 20, 2010

David's Psalms: The Waiting

The Psalms speak to us in a variety of contexts and situations.  They show us how to pray, how to handle our questions and doubts, and reflect patterns of worship and praise.  

And yet, it's important to remember that they were written by men, in the midst of specific events.  These men were responding to specific questions and doubts.  And the worship is a declaration of faith in spite of specific challenges.  

We don't know a lot about some of the psalmists, but we know about David, and we know about his challenges, the struggle to become king.  

I don't think any of us are in line for the throne of Israel, but I think a lot of us are in holding patterns, and we experience many of the same types of questions that David asks.  Maybe we've stepped out in faith to do something.  Or maybe the Holy Spirit has led us in a direction, but now we're experiencing resistance from circumstances and maybe people, and we wonder what's going on.  (Didn't God say to move forward? Were we really listening?)

So here's David.  He gets called out of the fields in order to get anointed by Samuel.  He gets filled with the Holy Spirit, something not available for everyone in that time period.  He plays his harp and sings for the king of Israel.  He defeats Goliath.  He's a hero, not just for that exploit, but because he's a warrior, leading armies to fight the Philistines.  

Everything's going really great, and then the people start singing a song that goes something like this:
Saul has killed thousands . . . David has killed tens of thousands . . . 
And now David's troubles begin.  Saul gets jealous.  (You remember that he is no longer filled with the Holy Spirit, he's gripped with price, and Samuel's told him that he is going to lose his throne.)  He's convinced that David will be the next king, and he's out to get rid of David.  

And so the struggle begins.  The people take sides, some with David and some with Saul.  Of course the soldiers side with the king, and now they start chasing David.  To kill him.  It's not good.  David takes up with a band of raiders.  Essentially not nice men who like to fight just because they like to fight.  They hide in caves and travel around Israel and neighboring countries.  

And all the time, David's remembering that Samuel anointed him to be king.  What happened?  Did God change his mind?  Maybe that's not what that meant.  When will God come through?  Will he come through?  Can he be trusted?

David's psalms reflect his conflict.  He's hiding. He's always on the run.  He's hungry, facing death everyday, and he's tired.  We know there's a happy ending, that he becomes king eventually, but David doesn't see the end.  He only knows today.  And today he's at the back of a cave, waiting for the king's men to pass by.  

You hear the range of his emotions in the songs he writes.  
In Psalm 3, he's confident:
O LORD, how many are my foes! 
       How many rise up against me!

Many are saying of me, 
       "God will not deliver him." 

But you are a shield around me, O LORD; 
       you bestow glory on me and lift up my head.
Sometimes he expresses distress.
Answer me when I call to you, 
       O my righteous God. 
       Give me relief from my distress; 
       be merciful to me and hear my prayer.
 How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame . . .   (Psalm 4)
In Psalm 6, he repents. 
In Psalm 7, he's confident again.
In Psalm 8, he worships God boldly.  
In Psalm 10, he feels abandoned by God.  He asks, 
Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? 
       Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
Again, in Psalm 13, he asks, 
How long, O LORD ? Will you forget me forever? 
       How long will you hide your face from me?

 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts 
       and every day have sorrow in my heart? 
       How long will my enemy triumph over me?
I love that his psalms, even the ones that express his anguish, end with statements of faith.  
In Psalm 13, he ends, saying, 

But I trust in your unfailing love; 
       my heart rejoices in your salvation.
 Iwill sing to the LORD, 
       for he has been good to me. 
Sometimes I feel like David.  Confident one day.  Filled with doubt and feeling abandoned another day.  Yet clinging to God because in my core I know he is my only hope.  

It's no wonder I love the Psalms.  
And it's no wonder I love songs based on these Holy Spirit-inspired prayers.  
Check out this song, based on Psalm 13 . . .  and this one too.

We question, we doubt, and we worship.  
The questions and doubts strengthen our worship and increase our dependence on our source of strength.  
When we are weak, then he is strong. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Psalm 5: Note to self - Remember to ask for help.

Last night Duane and I attended an event for pastors at Pathway Church in Clairemont.  Rich Guerra, the District Superintendent of the Assemblies spoke, and that was great.  But the evening had other significance for Duane and me.

Pathway Christian Fellowship used to be known as Clairemont First Assembly, and that's the church Duane and his family attended when they moved to San Diego in the early 60s.  And that's the church Duane and attended when we got married in 1978.  You could say we grew up there.

And so there were a lot of memories.  Good and bad.

We ate at a little Chinese restaurant we used to go to a lot when we lived in Clairemont, and as we ate, we talked about things we remembered.

The 70s were sort of a mixed bag.
There was a lot of excitement about the Jesus People movement--and a lot of suspicion.  Who were these crazy men with long hair, beards, and bell bottom jeans?  And how about those mini skirts?  Do we welcome these people into our churches?  Do we ask them to change?

So there was a sort of tension between the new and the old.  Between jeans and leisure suits and three-piece suits and ties.

I grew up pretty conservative, but the excitement of the Jesus People was infectious.  I wanted their passion, and I didn't quite find it in ordinary churches.  And yet, we never really left the ordinary church.  But that's another story.

And what about the music?  Guitars and drums.  Do they really belong into the churches?

I loved the music.  It spoke to my heart.  These lyrics seemed to get the heart of my questions and my doubts.  Christian rock was growing in popularity.  Concerts were mostly free.

And that's a very roundabout way of introducing a Psalm, but I was thinking about last night and remembering the 70s and I was thinking about Psalm 5 and remembering  a song from the 70s.  And you may be tired of looking up my links, but again, sometimes the fusion of words with music results in a better depiction of the an idea.

I first heard this song in 1976, although I think it was published before that.  I sat in my dad's music room, which was really a room in the basement where Daddy kept all his tape recording equipment and the amplifiers and the turntable and the other stuff.  And I wore big headphones and listened to this record.

And when I got to this song, I cried.

Here are the lyrics, taken almost directly from the King James Version:
Give ear to my words, O Lord.
Consider my meditation.
Hearken unto the voice of my cry, my King and my God.
For unto thee will I pray.  My voice shalt thou hear in the morning.  
O Lord, in the morning, will I direct my prayer.  Unto thee and will look up.

I don't know.  I think it might have been the first time I cried listening to a song.  For one thing, the author of the song, the man whose voice I was listening to, had died shortly after he recorded the song.  For another, it created an image of a God I had trouble picturing.  A God who listens to me.  Who loves me and who answers my prayers.  It was a long time before I trusted in that God.

Even now I forget to present my requests specifically before God.  And I forget to wait expectantly.  Trusting God to respond.

I don't know why I tend to think God is bothered by my requests.  But I think I'm not alone.  Even now, my default is to try and solve problems on my own.  It drives me nuts.

Note to self:  Remember to ask.  God loves me.

Joel: Between Porch and Altar

Book of Joel

The end of the world is coming.  
And no, this is not a joke.  

Most evangelical-type Christ followers believe this.  Sort of.  

The thing is, if we really believed this, if we really believed that destruction was imminent, that people would die, people we loved, this knowledge would compel us to do something.  

In rhetoric, we speak about kairos, urgency.  A need to act now.  

And in Joel, we get that.  

The day of the Lord is coming.  God will punish his people.  
"What the locust swarm has left the great locusts have eaten; what the great locusts have left the young locusts have eaten; what the young locusts have left other locusts have eaten."  (1:4)

It doesn't sound good.  
"Despair you farmers, wail, you vine growers; grieve for the wheat and the barley, because the harvest of the field is destroyed. . . . Surely the joy of mankind is withered away." (1:11-12)

"The day of the Lord is great; it is dreadful.  Who can endure it?" (2:11) Blow the trumpet in Zion! (2:1)  Sound a warning.  Run, but you won't be able to escape.  

Perhaps there is another way.  
"Even now," declares the Lord, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning . . . Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.  Who knows? He may turn and have pity . . ."

But act now.  
Blow the trumpet in Zion.  Gather the people.  
Get desperate before God and beg for mercy.  
Weep.  Weep loudly.  
Ask God to spare the people.  No, stand at the gates and wail.  Entreat God to relent.  
Mourn for the city.  Mourn for people you have never met.  
This is spiritual warfare.  And it's not pretty.  
It is the Holy Spirit who reveals himself.  How desperate are when we pray for our city?  Our neighbors? 

"Let the priests who ministry before the Lord weep between the temple porch and the altar.  Let them say, "Spare your people . . ."

And lest you think you're not a priest, think again.  This call is for all of us who follow Jesus Christ.  We are all priests now.  

Where is our urgency?  
I feel so complacent.  

Sometimes words don't capture the essence of an idea.  Sometimes an image or music is more effective.  Listen to this song, written by Charlie Hall.  

Yes, Jesus is coming back.  

Monday, September 13, 2010

Psalm 4: Searching in Silence

I discovered the Psalms in 1995.  

Yes, I knew they existed prior to that time.  And yes, I memorized a few of them in their entirety.  For example, Psalm 1 and Psalm 23.  And I learned some other verses too.  Sunday School teachers give you stars if you memorize verses, and if you get enough stars, you get pretty decent prizes.  Plus, I liked having more stars than anyone else.  

But in 1995, I started reading the Bible for me.  Basically, I was desperate to hear from God, because I was pretty sure that being a Christian should involve more than just going to church three times a week, giving money, serving in a ministry, and being good.  And I couldn't see any hope outside of the promises in the Bible--so I wanted them to be true.  

That's when I discovered the Psalms, desperate prayers by men with broken hearts.  They're angry at God.  Or they have more questions than answers.  They're frustrated watching evil men succeed while they walk through failures, often caused by the evil men.  And they struggle with their faith and still worship God, knowing that he is faithful, even if it doesn't feel like it.  

In other words, the psalmists were people like me.  

So I meditated on the Psalms and even wrote a melodies to go with them.  And I memorized them.  And I turned to them when I had questions and doubts and fears.  

And then a few years ago I started focusing on other passages.  The Gospels.  And the Epistles.  And yes, the prophets.  And I stopped feeling desperate.  Until this summer.  

I wish I would have remembered the Psalms in April.  Or May.  Or June.  
I needed company in my misery.  Company that reminds me to turn to God.  He is faithful.  He is loving.  He will see me through the questions and the doubts.  And I just need to worship him.  Because he is bigger than my problems.  

Listen to this section from Psalm 4, written by David.

"Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God.  Give me relief from my distress; be merciful to me and hear my prayer." 

I longed for relief.  I wanted the crazy questions and fears to dissipate, to stop plaguing me in my sleep, to stop harassing me during the day.  I longed to know that God was listening to my fears, my questions, my doubts.  

And even though I knew God was there, that he was leading me out of my job--and yes, I really did know that--I struggled with hurt feelings.  Being laid off wasn't personal.  But it felt personal.  And that made me angry.  And so I also struggled with anger.  It wasn't really directed at anyone in particular, just at the situation.  It felt so unfair.  

And here's this section from Psalm 4.  
"In your anger do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent."  

Ahhh.  I don't like being angry.  Sometimes I suppress anger or pretend like it's not there.  I think my parents told me it was "bad."  I don't know.  I felt like it was, anyway.  

So the David acknowledges feeling angry, but reminds himself not to sin.  Just to lie quietly, to search his own heart.  

To ask, "What's really going on here?  What am I really feeling? What do I need to let go of?"

"Offer right sacrifices and trust in the Lord," David says.  Keep doing the things God has asked you to do and trust God.  

He says, "Many are asking, 'Who can show us any good?'"  
I think that's David himself asking, "When is it going to turn around, God?  When will you intervene and when will we see something good?"

I prayed that prayer.  I felt so alone.  And yet, most of us pray that prayer at times.  When we're out of synch with our spouses and feel like we'll never function as a team.  Or when we struggle with finances.  Or when our kids rebel.  When we experience one hard thing after another and wonder what's really going on.

And now the prayer of hope:  "Let the light of your face shine upon us, Lord, and fill us with your joy.  I've experienced it before, and it's way better than lots of good food and wine."  Yes, this is a paraphrase, but I think my paraphrase captures the essence of David's prayer. 

He says, "We can wait, Lord.  We know you will rescue us.  But for now, give us peace.  Fill us with your hope and your joy."

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Psalms and the Minor Prophets . . . and on to Psalm 1

I keep finding songs as I go through the minor prophets and the Psalms.  No, I'm not writing them, I'm remembering them.

Songs tell the story of my life.
And please forgive me if I reference a few songs as I meander through the rest of the Old Testament.  In my own time and manner.

Whenever I read Psalm 1, I think of a song we used to sing back in the 70s.  I don't think I liked the song much back in the 70s, honestly, and I like it even less in the 21st century.  (Sadly many of the 70s worship choruses, especially songs we sang in youth group, were a lot like this.)

And if you're wondering where the link between this song and that chorus, it's this:  Blessed in this context means happy.  Way happy.  Blessedly happy.

The song makes happy sound trite.  (At this point, if you haven't listened to the song, you might want to click on the link and find out what I'm talking about.)

The thing is, sometimes I'm just not "happy."  Life is difficult sometimes.  I didn't feel 'blessed" or "happy" when I found out my job was ending.  I felt panicked and abandoned by God.  And my mom didn't feel blessed when she got a phone call on November 11, 2007, telling her my dad had a massive heart attack and she should get to the hospital as soon as possible.  I know of three families who are losing their homes.  I doubt if they feel blessed right now.  And the list of unhappiness goes on and on.

And yet, God is our Lord.  Either he is faithful, or he is not.  Either he is loving, or he is not.

Whether our concerns are huge, life-changing events, or they are day-to-day things that completely wear us out, we belong to the Lord.

And he loves it when we walk close to him, ignoring voices that pull us away from him, and when we dig into his word.

We are like trees planted by streams of water.  Our roots go deep, and we take in refreshing water all the time.  Automatically.  We yield fruit in season.

Obviously, we don't yield fruit out of season.  And even the most fruitful trees don't produce visible fruit all year long.  (That might not be true of some trees in some places.  But go with me.  I am not a horticulturist.)

The takeaway here is that sometimes life is hard, but when we stay close to the source of life, delighting in Him even when it seems like nothing will ever change, he watches over us.

God is our hope when life seems hopeless.
He is our song when the notes seem dissonant.
He is our blessing.  He is our happiness.

Blogging Through the Bible

It seemed like a do-able goal at the time, but honestly, I had no idea how hard it would be to blog through the Bible.

First, it's hard to do anything on a daily basis.  Especially come up with something interesting to write. Additionally, I keep experiencing a sort of disconnect between hearing God's Word to me, and coming up with something to say.  Sometimes I try so hard to come up with something to say that I stop listening to God speak to me through the passages I'm reading.

Next, my schedule keeps changing.  In an ideal world, I do this at 8:00 every morning.  And then move on.  In the world I live in, sometimes I have to be out of the house at 8:30 and I'm racing to get going.

Finally, I just don't understand all these passages.  I could say something, or I could take verses out of context, but that seems a little disingenuous.

Oh, and one more thing, life just keeps getting in the way.  Like most everyone I know, I experience ebbs and flows of spirituality.  Wouldn't it be lovely just to be completely and passionately in love with God every single day?  Wouldn't it be great not to get stuck in emotional ruts from time to time?

I've been a follower of Jesus Christ long enough now that I know He'll see me through the struggles, but they still knock me for a loop sometimes.

At any rate, I still keep coming back to this blog.
I'm trying to get through the minor prophets right now.  And From Garden to City has moved on to the Psalms so maybe I'll meander through them and go back and forth.

I'm still striving for self-discipline and daily blogging, but we shall see how that goes.  I've been striving for self-discipline for most of my life.

Music and My Dad

Last night I drove to Costco to buy some meatloaf and mashed potatoes.  Costco has some great already prepared foods, and now that we live in Santee, it takes about as much time to drop into Costco as it takes to drop into a grocery store.  (I love Santee for many reasons, and this is one of them.)

On the way home, I listened to A Prairie Home Companion as Garrison Keillor read a "letter" from a 150-year-old Lutheran church in Skandia, Minnesota that valued classical music.  As he read, a piano version of "Onward Christian Soldiers" played in the background.  It seems that the church has been through several music directors in its long history.  He named well-known composers, and as he read, the music adapted to reflect the style of each composer.

When Keillor got to Igor Stravinsky, I laughed out loud, and I thought to myself, my dad would really like this radio sketch.  He would laugh out loud, too.

I don't know if my dad ever listened to A Prairie Home Companion, but I do remember listening to radio dramas with my dad.  He piped music to nearly all the rooms of the house.  He played classical music and folk music and sacred music and quartets and big band.  My dad is the reason I love so many styles of music.  My mom and dad sang harmonies as they went about the day, and so I learned that from my parents.  Some families watch television as a backdrop to their day; we listened to music most of the time, and sometimes radio dramas.

It's sad that I never got to share these kinds of moments with my dad as an adult.  I moved away, and when I called home or visited, I mostly spent time with my mom and my siblings.  I don't really know why, although I have some theories.

In retrospect, I wish I'd pushed a little harder to be a part of my dad's life, on his terms.  We did share book recommendations.  I'm grateful for that.  I wish he'd pushed a little harder to be part of my life, on my terms.  I wish we both tried a little harder.

Sometimes we don't know what we're missing until it's too late.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Zechariah: Was it for me that you did all those religious things?

Zechariah 7:4-9

I grew up going to church.  Every Sunday morning.
When I started attending Montview Evangelical Free Church, we added Sunday night church and Wednesday night church.  Every week.

I got baptized.  I joined Pioneer Girls and then the youth group.  I competed on the Bible quiz team.  I took communion.  I memorized scripture.  I sang in the choir.  I led children's church.

And so on and so on.
After I moved to San Diego, I actually ramped up my service.

And none of that matters.  At least not on an eternal level.
What matters is what's going on in my heart.

In this passage, God tells Zechariah to ask the people, "When you fasted and mourned . . . was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, weren't you just feasting to have a good time?"

We can do a lot of religious things in the name of God, but God's looking for something else.

And it's not just about loving him passionately and raising our hands sincerely.  He wants us to "administer true justice, show mercy and compassion to one another."  He wants us to "not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor."

I think here it's good to think about who are the widows and the fatherless in our communities.  Who are the aliens and the poor?  How are we doing on that front?

I think I'm not doing so well.  Basically, I don't think I'm doing anything.


From Garden to City: Zechariah

This is what the Lord Almighty says, "Return to me, and I will return to you." (Zechariah 1:3)
Sometimes, when I have wandered from seeking the Lord, I think, I need to get my life together.  And then God will hear my prayers.  I hesitate to enter into worship because I think I am inauthentic.  Who am I to pretend to love the Lord so much?

And yet, I have found that when I go to God and confess I'm lost, he meets me.  When I tell him I'm sorry I wasn't paying attention, he forgives me.  When I tell him I want to be in head-over-heels in love with him, and I worship him with everything I have, even if it's not much, he multiples my love and my worship.

I have yet to figure out a formula for experiencing God's presence and hearing his voice in a meaningful way.  Yes, there's an element of prayer, worship, and service.  But it's more than that.

God is the source of my relationship with him.  I see him when he reveals himself to me.  I understand his word when he gives me understanding.  I worship him when he puts praise on my lips.

Jeremiah 29:13 echoes my experience:  "You will seek me and you will find me when you seek me with all your heart."

So does Isaiah 30:18-20.  The prophet tells the people, "The Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion . . . As soon as he hears, he will answer you."

Even the Psalmist begs the Lord to find him.  He says, "I have strayed like a lost sheep.  Seek your servant for I have not forgotten you."  (Psalm 119:176)

When I've got nothing left, the Lord fills my heart.
And until he does, I walk in faith.  I worship him in obedience.  Knowing that I have returned to him, and he will return to me.  He loves me.  He is faithful.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Zephaniah: The God who disciplines is the same God who rejoices over us with singing!

From Garden to City reading: Zephaniah

I just finished writing about God's love.  Honestly, I like thinking about that.
And then we get to books like Habakkuk or Zephaniah.
And it looks like the loving God we read about in the New Testament just showed his dark side.

It mean, it's pretty harsh.
"I will sweep everything from the face of the earth," declares the Lord in Zephaniah 1:2.
"I will sweep away both men and animals . . ."
Yeah.  Sounds loving to me.

My kids used to think I enjoyed punishing them.
That I enjoyed thinking of ways to frustrate them.
That I wanted to get back at them for being disobedient.

Honestly, in retrospect, I think I was pretty hard on them, and some of the things I made rules about really didn't matter.  But I didn't enjoy it.

I would do some things differently, given the chance.  But we don't get do-overs in raising our children.  And I digress.

The point is, our goal was to raise children who worked hard, who lived with integrity, who followed the law, who loved learning, who respected other people . . .

And we disciplined them to achieve those goals.
And we loved them along the way.
We celebrated our children.  We would have died for our children.

Sometimes discipline is easy.  Like when Jason was little, just learning to walk and run, we had a blackberry bush in our small yard.  Jason used to run dangerously close to the bush, and I was nervous he would run into the bush or even just brush past it, cutting himself on the thorns.  I warned him to stay away from the bush several times.  It's sharp.  You'll hurt yourself.  He just ran closer.  I don't think that was intentional.  He just didn't understand.

And so one day I took him up to the bush, and I poked him with a thorn, not hard enough to draw blood, but just enough for him to know this bush had the power to hurt.  "Sharp!" I said.  "Owie."

My actions might have looked cruel to an outsider, but Jason never ran close to the bush again.  And he enjoyed sweet berries every summer until we moved.

Sometimes discipline is harder.  Later one, when Jason was an adult, he got involved in drugs.  We warned him that we didn't want any drugs in our house.  But he was so deep in the lifestyle that he ignored our warnings.  We hesitated to ask him to leave.  God had been so clear in telling us to love him unconditionally and to forgive him, no matter what he did.

But if Jason hadn't left to join the Army, and if nothing had changed, we probably would have had to ask him to leave.  It wasn't safe for us.  And it wasn't safe for our daughters. It wouldn't have been because we didn't love him.  And we would have welcomed him home anytime if he agreed to abide by house rules.

Some friends of ours recently told us about the time they kicked their 19-year-old son out of the house just a few weeks before Christmas.  They just couldn't live with the rebellion.  The drama.

They loved their son so much that they couldn't let him continue in the way he was going.  And when he returned, they welcomed him, with new rules, and new standards.  And they rejoiced their son was home.  Discipline restored their relationship. The discipline looked harsh, even cruel, but the goal was restoration.

And this is God's discipline.  It's hard to see.  It's hard to understand.
It looks cruel, but God's desire is mercy.  He wants to deliver his people.

Zephaniah 3:7-15 tells the story beyond the initial discipline:
"Surely you will fear me," God tells the people, "and accept correction.  Wait for me.  After the discipline I will purify the lips of the people so that all of you will call on my name."

"I will restore the city and leave those who fear the name of the Lord.  So be glad and rejoice with all your heart, for the Lord has taken away your punishment."

And just as the father of the Prodigal Son rejoiced when his son returned home, just as we hug our children even more after we have to discipline them, the Lord will "take great delight" in his children, he will quiet them with his love, he will rejoice over them with singing.  (Zephaniah 3:17)

The writer of Hebrews had a great deal to say about God's discipline.  But this is enough for today.

The same God who corrects us, who disciplines us to bring us to repentance, to restore his relationship with us, is the same God who delivers us from evil, who delights in us, who rejoices over us with singing.

Hope That Counts

Psalm 147:10-11

Sometimes we like to remind God how much we've done for him.  Or how good we are at certain things.  How helpful we could be if we were given the right opportunities.  (It's possible that I am the only one who acts like this, and if so, you may want to move on to another posting.)

Certainly we all have strengths.  And God really does use our strengths.  And it's a good idea to develop our skills with practice and study.

But ultimately, no matter how good we are at anything, God's not impressed.  Romans 11 reminds us that we can never figure out God.  Basically, he doesn't owe us anything.

We need God.
I need God.
I need to be thoroughly dependent on him.
And I am, even if I don't realize it.

I need to fear the Lord.  Recognize his power.  And my weakness.  Rely on his strength and not my own.  Rest in unfailing love.

In the old days, I struggled because I never felt good enough--good enough to write, good enough to lead a small group, good enough to return to school . . .

That's because I depended on my own strength.  Because in some twisted way I thought God would love me just a little bit more if I were more godly, more skilled, more . . .

I don't know.  I lived in fear that someone would figure out that I really wasn't everything I appeared to be on the outside.  And I didn't realize that we're all like that, really.

And here's where I want to be today, as I prepare my lesson plans, as I walk into the classroom this morning, as I go about my day, interacting with people.  People who know Jesus.  And people who don't.

For God doesn't take pleasure in our strengths.  He doesn't delight in how adept we are at doing things.  No, our God isn't like that.  He delights in those who fear him.  Those who bow down before him, who humble themselves and surrender their days to him.  Who put their hope in his unfailing love.

And his love never fails.  Never.
I just included a link to a song that has given me great encouragement since Sarah Northup introduced it a few months back at Newbreak Santee.

Enjoy.  Take a few minutes to worship our Lord.  Take a few minutes to remember to put your hope in him today.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Haggai - Why doesn't anyone ever preach from this passage?

Haggai - 

I skipped blogging on Malachi.  You know that passage, "Will a man rob God?"  I've heard a lot of sermons about tithing built on Malachi 3.  It's a good passage.  I think I quoted it in a previous post.

But I've never heard a sermon from Haggai.  Maybe because prophet's name isn't culturally pleasing.  (I don't know how Hebrews pronounce this name, but Americans usually say something like "haggy eye.")

Haggai wrote this book during the exile, during the reign of King Darius.

At any rate, the Babylonians completely destroyed the temple.  The people who stayed and the exiles who returned pretty much left it in ruins.  I suppose there's no point in restoring the temple of a God who commands you to do things you don't actually plan on doing.

They gave a better excuse.  They said, "The time has not yet come for the Lord's house to be built."  Their excuse sounds pretty spiritual, actually.  Sort of like, we're praying about it, but God hasn't give us a sign that it's time yet.  Or we're waiting for God to tell us to built the temple or until we have a peace about it.

I'm really used to those kinds of excuses.  I keep a few in my back pocket to use when I don't want to do things.  (Seriously, these can be legitimate excuses, but not always.)

But God's not fooled by high-minded phony spirituality, and he tells Haggai, "Okay, so it's not time for you to build the temple.  I get that.  I guess it's time for you to improve your already nice homes, to build your businesses, and to grow your wealth.  It's definitely not time to go about restoring my house, my kingdom, my honor.  Your stuff is definitely more important."

And then God issues a challenge, saying, "So how's it going for you?  You plant a lot, but you're not harvesting much.  You eat, but you're always hungry.  You drink, but you're always thirsty.  You wear warm clothes, but you're always cold.  And you earn money, but you can never save it because there's always some sort of emergency.  It's like your purse has holes in it."  (See Malachi 3:11.)

One more thing - "Give careful thought to your ways."

It was true.  Their fields were full of blight and mildew.  I'm not sure what blight is, but it sounds bad.  They never had enough wine.  Their crops got hail instead of rain.  And the vines, figs, pomegranates, and olives didn't bear fruit.

Once they started giving to God, rebuilding the temple, and serving him, God blessed them.  But he warned them, "Give careful thought to your ways."  Apparently they needed to maintain their change in lifestyle.

As I read this passage, but immediately thought about the connections to Malachi 3.  I thought about the way we honor God through our giving.  The excuses we make for not giving.  "I'm waiting for God to bless me, and then I'll give."  Or "God hasn't really told me how much I should give to him."

I've had to work through those challenges in the past.  Our tithes and offerings really do go to building the church.  Not just the actual structures, although there's always maintenance and improvements, but also the ministries of the church.

And then there's the way we spend our time.  Sometimes we wait to get into a ministry because we don't know which one we should join.  We're waiting until God shows us specifically.  Or we think we're too busy to get into a small group or to lead a small group.  We're waiting for God to tell us what to do, until we're sure it's time.

All these things are part of building the church.
The second part of this applications hits home most for me.  In the past I've done a lot of ministry, helping to build Newbreak.  And sometimes I've done too much.

Right now I'm sitting on the sidelines, mostly, asking God what should I do.  And I'm waiting for a dramatic word.  I'm waiting for God to say, "Do X."

I'll be praying about that today.

September 3, 2010 - A new school year

I started school on Tuesday.
Well, I really started on Monday night.  Yes, I have a class from 7:00 to 10:00 at SDSU.  It's the only class I can take, and so I'm sitting in a desk taking notes at time I would prefer to be sleeping.  And yes, I did this all last year on Monday evenings for School of Ministry.

But I digress.
It didn't feel like I started school until I walked into my own classroom.  And I wondered what it would be like, would I be nervous, would I know what to do, would I make sense . . .
And it was wonderful.

I love teaching.  I love lesson planning.
I signed up for another class, Tuesdays and Thursdays, but I dropped it.  Teaching Writing to Secondary Students.  I walked into the classroom and just felt a knot in the pit of my stomach.  I don't need the class.

It's time to focus on teaching and writing.  Finishing the thesis so I can finish my degree.  So I can teach and write some more.

Focus.  Focus.
A difficult thing to do for someone who wants to know everything.