Sunday, July 31, 2011

Psalm 5 - Refuge

There was a time when I knew what it felt like to have refuge in God, but I haven't felt that way in a long time.  If I had to pinpoint one word to say what I feel like I've been missing in my life, it would be refuge.  That word means so much to me that it's hard to even define, so I tried to define it visually.

When I hear the word refuge, I have a temporary physical reaction: a deep breath, a relaxed posture, and my eyes momentarily drift closed.  A refuge is a place of complete unburdening, the ability to let go of everything that is weighing down my heart and my mind.

And then, I feel frustration, anger, and bitterness.  Why is God only letting me have refuge so infrequently, for a few seconds here and there?  Why can I not carry that sense of refuge with me like I used to when dealing with difficult situations?  

An excellent friend pointed out to me a couple days ago that it might be a good idea for me to forget about what things used to be like for me and look toward the future instead.  She is absolutely right.  I think it's healthy for me to want to examine why I am in the place I currently am in, but not for me to use it as more fuel for any anger and bitterness I have towards God.  So yes, I have felt as if God is holding out on me, letting me see glimpses of what I desire so badly, but always keeping complete refuge and unburdening just out of reach.  But now I want to look at my past as a way to understand where I am at present so that I can move on.

It's not that I expect my circumstances to be easy because I have faith in God, because I don't.  But, ever since things started getting difficult between God and I way back in college, I've felt like God is allowing dozens of stressors and horrible circumstances to pound away at my faith and sense of well-being without providing me that sense of refuge - that feeling that I have somewhere I can retreat to in a moment and experience safety and peace in the midst of chaos.

Maybe I haven't looked for it hard enough (more on that in a later post) or in the right places.  Maybe there really haven't been many opportunities for refuge after all.  Maybe my memory is too short and I'm too quickly forgetting the times when I have been able to unburden completely.

Whatever the reason, I realize that my heart has become hardened towards God because I have perceived a lack of refuge so often since my freshman year of college.  After a while, I think I quit looking for God to provide refuge and even stopped asking for it.  (If you want to read more about the process of hardening my heart, read the entry from July 19 called "Psalm 1").

Friday, July 29, 2011

A Quick Request

If you are following my blog and haven't become a member yet, please consider doing so.  Also, if you are already a member, please invite someone else to become a member.  It can be someone I know or someone I don't, I just want more people to help keep me accountable.

For those of you who have encouraged me in this or kept me accountable so far, thank you so much.  Your support has meant more than I let on.  

Psalm 4 - Answer Me When I Call

Here's some advanced warning: This is a long blog entry.  I understand you might not have the time or desire to read it in it's entirety, although I think there are some good insights in there.  However, if you don't want to read all of it, read the first three paragraphs and the last one.

Like Psalm 3, Psalm 4 is divided into three sections that I can see:

  1. A demand for God to provide relief from distress.  This demand is directed towards God as David says, "Answer me when I call to you, my righteous God."  
  2. Knowledge that God has set apart the godly and will hear their prayers, including David's own prayer for relief.  Also, a command to search your own heart and not lay blame elsewhere.  This section is directed towards people.
  3. Trust in God because he can provide even greater joy than prosperity can.  He will allow you to sleep in peace, even in troubled times.  Again, this section is directed towards people.
This is where things get difficult for me.  My life is easier now than it was when I started this.  I don't feet the same pressure as I was earlier this year.  Therefore, it's going to be hard for me to look deeper instead of focusing on all the "Sunday School Answers" I've learned my whole life.  I'm going to have to really take my time and look at what I'm really supposed to be learning.  After all, my goal was to develop a real relationship with God based on honesty.

When I look deeper into this psalm, what immediately strikes me is the way David almost commands God to take action.  He says "answer me" and "give me relief" and "have mercy on me" and "hear my prayer." It seems gutsy almost to the point of being impertinent - and that's just in the first verse!  These four commands resonate with me in a way that not much else has over the past year as those are the exact same things I have felt like I have needed.  I need for God to answer me and give me relief and have mercy on me and hear my prayer, but what I want to focus on first is the first part of the verse where David says, "Answer me when I call to you, my righteous God."

The line struck me as almost unusual and made me wonder if there are any other places where the same phrasing is used.  There are.  According to my study Bible, there are seven times David uses this particular phrasing, not to mention the times other authors used it in the Bible.  I want to take a minute to look at the times when David uses it.
  • Psalm 3:4 - "I call out to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy mountain."
  • Psalm 4:1 - "Answer me when I call to you, my righteous God."
  • Psalm 17:6 - "I call on you, my God, for you will answer me."
  • Psalm 22:2 - "My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest."
  • Psalm 27:7 - "Hear my voice when I call, LORD; be merciful to me and answer me."
  • Psalm 86:7 - "When I am in distress, I call to you, because you answer me."
  • Psalm 138:3 - "When I called, you answered me; you greatly emboldened me."
The bold verses above are ones where David doesn't mention an answer or even a possible answer from God.    Obviously, David knew that God would answer him because there are four other specific times where he uses the same language but added that God answered.  So, why did he leave that hopeful part out of the other three verses?  Based on my own experiences, I see at least four options:
  1. He didn't feel like God was answering or would be answering soon.
  2. He knew that God would answer based on his knowledge of God and past experiences, but saying it in that moment seemed forced, so he left it out.
  3. He was feeling desperate and perhaps a little angry.
  4. He knew the truth, but had a hard time believing it in the moment.
I can relate to all those explanations.  I know what it feels like to feel like God's not answering.  I still don't feel God's presence.  The only difference is, at this particular time in my life, I don't feel the same desperation I was feeling not long ago.  

If you skimmed over all of that because it seemed tedious to you, here's the part I'd like you to read.  From reading Psalm 4:1 and other verses from David like it, I've reached some conclusions.  First, it's acceptable to God to feel desperate and demand answers.  It's also fine not to verbally acknowledge the truths you know about God in those moments.  Second, even when it's not acknowledged or felt, the truth remains that God does answer my cries.  Lastly, it's easier to see those answers during times when I am farther removed from the pressure that caused the desperation in the first place.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Psalm 3

If you read my last blog entry, you would know that it took me literally two weeks to get to any application of Psalm 3 to my life because I spent that much time looking at the history of David's life.  I've decided not to go into any sort of detail here because my purpose is to keep my focus on the personal rather than the intellectual.  However, if you haven't read the accounts about David found in 1 and 2 Samuel, read it.  Even if you weren't trying to discern any spiritual lessons from those books, you could still read it just for entertainment.  It has all the elements of a current television, movie, or book drama or suspense.

I see three major parts to the Psalm:

  1. I have so many enemies.
  2. God shields me from those enemies and answers my cries for help.
  3. Therefore, I am not afraid because my victory comes from God.
Even though my purpose isn't really to add to my store of biblical knowledge, the context of David's situation is helpful to me in making this psalm more personal.  David really did have so many enemies and when he writes this psalm, he is specifically referring to Absalom, his own son, who had started a revolution against him.  So, not only is David dealing with being physically in danger, fleeing, and fighting, he is also dealing with the betrayal of his own son turning against him.

Still, somehow David is able to say confidently that God is protecting him.  Beyond that, he says that God is his glory and is helping him to hold his head high.  He has 100 percent confidence in God when everything around him that could be construed as a sign is pointing toward being deserted by God.  

When I think in those terms, the parallel to my own life is unmistakeable and a psalm that seemed to be relatively irrelevant comes to life.  But, there is a huge difference between David and I.  There have been many times recently where I have felt desperate and deserted.  From years of biblical upbringing, I can say that I believe in my head that God is watching over me, but in reality my faith has been shaken.  I did not have that supreme confidence in God as David did and I certainly did not feel victorious.  Even now, removed from the situations that caused such acute stress, I feel relief, but not victory.  It's like the pressure has been removed, but I'm still wondering, "What was the point?"

Again, I have more questions than answers.  Why has God let me feel deserted?  Why have I had to deal with all the things that have led me to being so distant from God?  Why can't I be like other people (or like I used to be) and feel close to God through struggle?  How can I get close to God if I have a hard time trusting that He won't desert me?  How can my faith be renewed when I feel let down that all my knowledge of God didn't mesh with my real life experiences?  

And, perhaps most importantly, how can I come out of these last several years feeling victorious?  

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Psalm 3 and Procrastination

I've put off writing about Psalm 3 for a few days.  I started Psalm 3 back on February 1, finally finishing on February 14 even though I was reading consistently.  If that seems a little crazy, let me explain.  When I read through Psalm 3 the first time, I realized I didn't know or remember enough about David's life to understand the depth of what he wrote in the Psalm.  Before you even get to the Psalm itself, there's a note saying that David wrote it when he fled from his son Absalom.  I couldn't remember the specifics of how that came about, so I decided to reread 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel to get some background.

I'm not sure how in-depth I want to go into the history that I read about as I write the blog.  I took fairly detailed notes when I read through Samuel the first time, but my whole purpose with the blog isn't to be intellectual, but highly personal and honest, focusing on my relationship with God.

Just based on a quick preliminary look at the outline of 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel that is in my Bible, it's easy to tell that David did not live an easy life.  He was alienated, hunted, pursued, and attacked.  He also committed adultery and murder.  How can a man that went through that much still have the strength and faith to say:

But you, LORD, are a shield around me,
   my glory, the One who lifts my head high.
I call out to the LORD,
   and he answers me from his holy mountain.

I lie down and sleep;
   I wake again, because the LORD sustains me.
I will not fear though tens of thousands
   assail me on every side. (Psalm 3:3-6)

In light of that, how can I possibly be struggling with my faith as much as I am?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Psalm 2: An Aside

I'm not sure how much of this thinking is directly related to Psalm 2 and I'm inclined to believe that not much of it is, but for whatever reason, it's what's on my mind after reading the Psalm.

Before I go on, I want to clarify one thing: what I'm about to say is not an indictment on anyone that we know, past or present.  If anything it's a reflection of things I've been known to do in the past that I have now come to realize may be more harmful than helpful.

There have been times when I have spoken honestly about where I am in my faith.  Being this frank about my relationship with God generally puts people on edge, not knowing whether to address what I said or forget that I said it.  If they do respond, I usually get one of two responses:

  1. "That sucks.  I'm sorry you're going through that."  Then, nothing more is said or done, helpful or otherwise.  
  2. "(Insert Sunday School answer here)."  Then, after the Sunday School answer is given, nothing more is said or done, helpful or otherwise.  
Thinking about this has made me acutely aware of all the times in the past when I have encountered someone struggling with their faith or with a difficult situation and given the "easy" answers.  It reminds me of all the times I could have really done something to help someone out, but instead focused on giving them the most perfectly correct and appropriate biblical answer.  What a waste of an opportunity to show God's love in a personal and practical way.  

Friday, July 22, 2011

Psalm 2

This Psalm was a little bit hard to get into at first.  At first glance, all I saw was largely irrelevant talk about plotting against God and being a wise ruler.  Then, all the sudden, I get to the last line: "Blessed are all who take refuge in him."  I was taken back immediately by seeing the word refuge following the rest of the Psalm that didn't seem to apply to me at all.  After all, the reason I started reading the Psalms is because I felt like I was lacking refuge.

The more I think about why that line is at the end of this Psalm, the more uncomfortable I feel.  As I've mentioned in the previous posts, I have felt distant and sometimes ignored by God off and on for the past several years.  So, when I see something referring to God as a place of refuge, I wonder why that hasn't been true for me?  Maybe it would help to walk through my thinking when I read the second-to-last line with the last.  That line says, "For his wrath can flare up in a moment."  It doesn't seem to mesh with the next verse about God being a refuge.  Combine that with the growing feeling of disconnect between myself and God and I end up being more than a little uncomfortable.

When I read the whole Psalm, there are certain words that stick out, some of them deal with people who "plot" against God and some of them deal with those who are sons of God.  Here are some that deal with people who plot against God and some of the things that immediately came to mind:

  • conspire
  • plot
  • vain - All my efforts to renew my relationship with God have seemed to be in vain.
  • chains - I feel like I'm chained, like I'm being weighed down by something I can't quite put my finger on.
  • fetters
  • scoff
  • rebuke - Could God be rebuking me for some reason?  Is that why there is this distant?
  • anger - I don't mind admitting that I have been angry with God.  It took me a long time to be able to admit it even to myself, though, so admitting it to anyone who reads this is a bit of a stretch.
  • terrifies
  • wrath
  • destroyed - I feel like my confidence in my faith is being destroyed, maybe not by an active force, but possibly by passivity.
Then, I read the Psalm again and notice all the words that are about the sons of God, the ones who find refuge in God:
  • ask - I have grown tired by the lack of the response, so I have stopped asking.
  • inheritance
  • rule
  • wise - I feel anything but wise.
  • warned
  • serve with fear
  • rejoice with trembling - I don't do much rejoicing about my faith.
  • blessed
  • refuge - Again, I definitely feel as if I have been lacking refuge during some of the biggest struggles I've ever dealt with.
When I look at these words and their connotations, I feel more connected to the first list than the second one.  Those words seem more in line with what I've been feeling about my faith. I'm still not sure what this says about me or about God.  Like I've mentioned before, there are more questions than answers.  And the more I process everything, the more I don't understand.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Psalm 1 (and then some)

According to Psalm 1:6a, "The LORD watches over the way of the righteous."  I've been immersed in Christian culture long enough to know the truth of that statement, at least in my head.  In the past, I would have turned to a verse like that when I was struggling and been comforted.  Now, reading that verse leaves me  vaguely disturbed.  It's hard to explain how I can simultaneously know the truth of God's protection and also feel uncomfortable when reading a verse about it, but it basically comes down to a general overriding feeling that while God may be watching over me, he is certainly not interceding for me in any way.  Again, I'm not trying to offend or renounce my faith, so don't worry about me too much.

Here are the options that come to mind when I think about verse 6:

  1. I am not, in fact, righteous enough to be watched over.  Therefore, I need to repent to be made righteous in God's eyes.  This makes sense as I know I am a sinner, but makes me feel like there are some magic words that need to be said to make everything better with God.  And that doesn't mesh with everything I have ever known to be true about Him.
  2. I am actually being watched over, but I fail to recognize God's presence.  I need to be more aware of how He is working in my life.  But, how do I go about being more aware of Him.
  3. The promise is untrue.  I'm not saying this is what I believe, but logically, it's an option for why I feel like I'm not being watched over.
  4. When God says He will watch over us, He doesn't mean that He will actually step in, just that He is aware of what is going on.  So maybe, for some reason, God is fully aware of my struggle and not providing peace and comfort while I'm dealing with the difficulties.  This, to me, is the most devastating possible conclusion of the four.  How could a God I know to be loving see how much I'm struggling, hear me desperately call to Him, and not respond to me?
I think there might be some truth in some of these options.  I am a sinner who constantly needs to repent, something that I don't do nearly as much as I need to.  I am probably turning a blind eye to the way God is actually working in my life, partly because I'm angry and partly because I'm out of practice.  I don't think God should remove me from the struggle or fix the situation, but I also don't think there's anything biblically unsound about expecting peace or comfort.  

So I guess I'm no closer to understanding what it really means that God is watching over me.  I was brought up to believe verses like Psalm 1:6 and also Nahum 1:7, which says, "The LORD is good, a refuge in times of trouble.  He cares for those who trust him."  I have felt this sense of refuge before, but now, because God has felt so distant through so many troubled times, me heart can't honestly admit to trusting that God is my refuge. Sadly, this has meant that I don't have any reliable source of refuge at all through what has been the most emotionally difficult times of my life.

I am going into this "study" with more questions than answers.  In fact, the more I think about my questions, the more I come up with.  But, life is not always packaged neatly.  Sometimes questions take time to be answered and sometimes there are no answers to be had, and I'm learning that the process of seeking answers can be more trying than I ever imagined.

So, I guess my goal in all this is not really to look for simple answers. I'm seeking to be honest with myself and my God as I question and eventually, to find the peace and refuge that has been alluding me for so long.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Psalm 1

To start, I'm going to go back through all the Psalms again, starting with Psalm 1.  Some of the things I mention will be things that stuck out to me the first time I read through it, way back in January.  To give some perspective, in January we had four kids, two were ours and two were foster children so close in age to our own they might as well have been two sets of twins.  Needless to say, during this time I was not looking at anything through a lens of peace, but through one of chaos and struggle a lot of times.

I looked at Psalm 1 with two translations, NIV and The Message, the NIV because it's what I'm used to and The Message because it's different.  One thing stands out in the NIV that doesn't in The Message and that is the first two verses.  Psalm 1:1 says,  

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...

To me, this verse represents a progression.  First comes walking in step with the wicked.  When walking, it's easy to alter your course to avoid sin, but it's also easy to keep your momentum going and not even notice that you're following sin.  If you take the analogy one step further, you get standing in sin.  This is a choice: recognizing that you are in sin and choosing to stay there.  One step more and you are sitting in sin: a decision not only to stay in sin, but also to make yourself comfortable in in.  

My purpose in reading the Psalms, though, is not simply to understand things intellectually and come away with more knowledge to store away.  I'm at a point in my faith where intellectual knowledge alone is not enough.  So, when I read that verse more carefully, I see myself in it.  It's hard at first to classify myself as "wicked," but I see the truth in it when I consider the progression of the past five or so years of my life. 

First, I started wandering from God, a little bit here and there, but always coming back to Him.  This isn't the type of wandering you may be thinking.  On the outside, my life didn't change.  Anyone looking at me from a worldly perspective wouldn't have seen me doing anything wrong.  But, because of the circumstances of my life, I began closing my heart off to God, one little piece at a time.  Over time, when I would turn back to Him, I would keep more and more of those closed-off sections to myself.  

Eventually, my wanderings became longer.  It would be months before I would actually turn my heart back toward God again and when I did, I was holding back.  It's not so much that I made a choice to stand away from God, but I did make choices to not turn back to Him.  There were many specific times when I felt God tugging at my heart a little, but instead of turning back, I would choose to stand my ground, keeping myself separated from Him.  There are too many reasons for why I did this to go into detail, but at the core of all my reasons was that I was wounded and blamed God for much of it.  

After a while, I became comfortable with my life the way it was and noticed God even less than before.  I still don't know if it's because I wasn't ready to hear or if God really was leaving me to my own devices, but suffice it to say that God felt more distant than He ever had - at a time when I needed Him the most.  

Looking back, I can see that I caused the great chasm between myself and my Lord, but I still experience anger and bitterness.  I made a series of decisions that put an increasing amount of space between myself and God.  Of course, the space crescendoed to a point where, when I finally felt the need to call out to God because of my circumstances, all I felt was a resounding, deafening silence.  After all my time avoiding God, it felt like he was intentionally avoiding me.

To be perfectly honest, I still feel that way about God much of the time.  I grew up in church, so I know all the verses about how God won't abandon us and how He won't give us more than we can handle.  While intellectually I know the truth in those verses, right now, sometimes hearing those verses almost make me want to physically cringe.  I'm not trying to offend anyone and I definitely am not headed down the path to renouncing my faith.  Quite the opposite, I think I'm finally starting the journey towards real faith rather than a superficially easy faith: a transition from the theoretical the the deeply meaningful.  And I don't think God intends that transition to be easy.  

No Excuses

On January 21, I decided to start reading through the Psalms one-by-one, reading a little each day.  By March 21, I had made it through Psalm 10.  And that's as far as I got.  I can explain away my lack of commitment in numerous ways:

  • My life is busy - I have work and (now) three kids and a husband, and my house is a mess.
  • I need some time to relax, so that would be the best use of any quiet time I manage to sneak in.
  • I didn't really feel any closer to God through the process.
  • I didn't have anyone to keep me accountable.
  • It's hard to take time away from the family I love.
  • It can be difficult to read at that pace - always examining the passage and my heart closely.
But really, it comes down to a lack of commitment on my part.  I could have dealt with each of those obstacles, some of them in a very simple manner.  Instead, I chose to ignore what God had put on my heart to do.  It's amazing how easily I let go of that small bit of excitement I felt at trying to get closer to God again.  

So here I am six months later.  Yes, I can still use those excuses, but I don't want to.  I am committing to reading every day until I make it all the way through the Psalms.  I will read carefully, searching for what God needs to teach me.  And, so that I can't quit before I'm done, I am going to post what I'm learning (or not learning) on this blog.  I have blogged before, but never publicly, so this has the potential to make me vulnerable in a new way.  For those of you who know me well, you will understand that I'm a private person.  I don't feel the need to share my thoughts and feelings with everyone and I don't like the focus to be on me.  So, you will know how difficult a process this could be for me.  I would appreciate any encouragement you can give - and a good kick in the pants if I slack off again.