Category Archives: psalms

a blessed life.

(First published July 13, 2014)

When you pick up a book of poetry or a book of song lyrics, you have to work.

You cannot read Gerard Manley Hopkins or W.H. Auden or Bono the same way you read Malcolm Gladwell or Donald Miller. With poems, you have to stop often, read out loud at times, look in your heart for images and understanding.

The book of Psalms is a book of poetry. It takes time to read and reread. But that what keeps people going back.

Here’s a reflection on the first of the psalms.

Psalm 1

It doesn’t make a lot of sense, now, does it
if a person wanting to live a blessed life
gets all his advice from people who are against God
or walks along a path that leads away from God
or sits on the sidelines being snarky all the time.
Instead, think what would happen if she decided
to focus on God’s words
like words from a lover
and day and night reflected on them.
It’d be like a planting a tree right by a river,
roots well watered,
branches bearing great fruit.
The things people like that do, they prosper somehow.
A person who is against God isn’t going to grow this way.
Without the water of life, you end up more like chaff,
the hull on the outside of a grain of wheat,
blowing away in the harvest wind.
At the end of everything, when considering how life was lived,
the ones who chose to be wicked
will find their legs collapsing under them.
And the ones who joyfully wanted “sinner” as their pursuit
will find no room in the “righteous” section.
Those who trail along after God
find protection along the way.
Those who are committed to avoiding that path
will find themselves among the ruins.

think what would happen if she decided to

From strength to strength

The mom of my friend died the other afternoon. We talked together a few hours before.

He knew it was coming. He was anticipating the arrangements, the conversations, the travel. He was feeling weary. I knew the feeling. Some of you do, too.

A couple hours before we met, I had been reading a prayer. I came across it, I confess, by opening my Bible to Psalms. No reading pattern, no plan.

“Blessed are those whose strength is in You, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.”

That’s us, you and me, those of us who are on this journey, this pilgrimage, this process of learning about following Jesus. That’s us, you and me, driven by our weakness.

“As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
    they make it a place of springs;
    the autumn rains also cover it with pools.”

It’s a valley near Jerusalem, a valley of dryness. People on pilgrimage bring water to dry places.

They go from strength to strength,
    till each appears before God in Zion.

This is the sentence that stopped me, that made me reflect. Because on my pilgrimage there are many moments that don’t feel like strength. Moments like the one sitting with my friend.

But what if this is us, you and me, though we often don’t realize it. That’s us moving from oasis to oasis, with long stretches between. That’s us, moving from time of healing to time of healing, with need of healing between. What if the moments of strength are what sustains us in the in-between? What if the walk of faith is characterized, as Paul wrote by “striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.” What if the strength is a series of texts in the moments we need it for when we need it rather than the whole book, a drip rather than a reservoir.


Bittersweet fun

A new person that came into the group, and she fit a certain stereotype to a T. Her clothing reflected a style that passed out of vogue about 20 years ago.

I was powerless. I knew a friend in that group would completely agree with my judgment and be equally amused. So after a tiny hesitation, I texted my friend. We exchanged a knowing smile.

“Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you,” Jesus said in Matthew 7:12. Though this is one of the most quoted verses in the Bible, I still seem to have a hard time applying that concept to my life.

A very simple way to stop myself from stepping across the line is to ask, “Could I say that directly to the person I am talking about?” If the answer is no, then I should not say it to anyone else.

It was such fun to share my judgment and laugh about that person – for a brief moment. Then I was overwhelmed with a wave of guilt.

The Fashion Violation Lady will never know about my little text. But God did. And that’s where forgiveness comes in. “Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7). Then, “He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). So once I ask for forgiveness, it’s gone.

And I learned my lesson. Hopefully for at least a few days.

Things get really complicated when we say things we regret to a person face-to-face. Then the damage is harder to undo. It may take significant work to dig ourselves out of a hole. For the future, ask for protection ahead of time: “God, help me love others today!”

(Paul Merrill writes here every First Friday.)

I am restless in my complaint.

So I took my own advice yesterday morning. I read Psalm 55. I am familiar with the prayer, particularly the part in the middle where David talks about being betrayed by a close friend.

If an enemy were insulting me,
    I could endure it;
if a foe were rising against me,
    I could hide.
But it is you, a man like myself,
    my companion, my close friend,
with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship
    at the house of God,
as we walked about
    among the worshipers.

In our terms, David is talking about being attacked by someone from church. They had been in youth group together, they had worked together on construction projects. They had attended potlucks together, had complained about the same bad coffee. They were on the same committees.

And now, something changed.

My companion attacks his friends;
    he violates his covenant.
His talk is smooth as butter,
    yet war is in his heart;
his words are more soothing than oil,
    yet they are drawn swords.

I’ve noticed that before. I’ve offered it to others who were feeling that sense of betrayal, to show them that David would have understood, that his response can be our response. His fear, his frustration, his cry of despair, he plea for destruction, his trust.

But I never noticed the first part, where David is talking about his praying.

Give ear to my prayer, O God,
    and hide not yourself from my plea for mercy!
Attend to me, and answer me;
    I am restless in my complaint and I moan,
because of the noise of the enemy,
    because of the oppression of the wicked.

David couldn’t think straight, couldn’t pray right. He started to talk to God, and the voices in his head and in the hallway were pulling him away. He had fear-induced ADD.

I missed that. Until, I needed it today.

“God, I can’t concentrate, but would you sort through my thoughts and make the requests make sense? And then answer? Please?”

For another prayer, listen to Psalm 130 from the Bethel College Choir.

On the heavens and mosquitoes.

It was Monday, and my brain was moving very slowly. I turned to Psalm 19, as I’ve been trying to do all year.

“The heavens declare the glory of God,” I read. I started thinking about sitting on the deck to watch the heavens.

Early morning when the house gives us shade. It’s cool. The sky is clearly visible between the tops of the oak trees and the rooftop. There is enough space to see clouds, windshopped into interesting shapes. And blue. And the faint white moon.

Evening, after supper, after walking, after the coffee is brewed and the banana is sliced and mixed with shredded wheat, after the conversation quiets, both between birds and between us. The blue turns pink, the trees turn black.

And then I thought about the mosquitoes. Not deep-swamp, black clouds of mosquitoes. We have suburban mosquitoes. A slow buzzing, an occasional swelling on bare ankle or arm.

I scratched as I thought about the mosquitoes, and thought about all the times they bit and I left. Left the conversations between birds. Left the conversations between friends. Left the conversation between deep heaven and earth, the declarations of the glories of God, verse after verse, each shaded differently, notes changing nightly.

A few tiny buzzing bugs shut down life-changing conversations.

I could put something on my ankles. I could put candles on the corners of the deck, covers on the tops of my ears. If I really wanted to listen to the heavens and to the voices closer to earth and my heart, I could do many things to stop the distraction.

If I want to listen for God, there many small suburban distractions I could ignore and avoid.

But maybe avoiding the annoying itch is the most important evening task.

Pesky psalm. Stinging like that.