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Posts Tagged ‘the Psalms’

Jo 17It has been an interesting experience these past few weeks to pick up my novel writing again, after completing two non-fiction books. While I love writing non-fiction, it is such a joy to feel I can let loose and create a whole new story from scratch.

Novel writing can be a slow, exhausting process, but it can also be so fulfilling, as the various characters develop and the strands of the story come together. And for me, it can easily become all-consuming too. I relate deeply with my characters. I feel their joy and pain and confusion. I immerse myself in their world. I ache for them and hold my breath at times in the hope they will make good and right decisions.

With my current novel, I felt relieved when I completed the first five chapters—always the hardest for me. The story seemed to be taking shape and gaining momentum. But because I knew I was approaching a very sad section, I baulked. I did not want my main character to endure such grief, yet I knew that was where the story needed to go. I put it aside and wrote other shorter pieces for a while, but eventually, I decided to take the plunge again.

Yet as I wrote, I became sadder and sadder. You see, without giving too much away, a little boy drowns in this novel—and his death is intrinsic to the plot. I had to describe the actual event. Then I had to portray the family’s grief and anger and lack of forgiveness too from one family member towards another. As well, I had to visualise the lasting effects of such a tragedy on my main character and begin to help her work through these in a realistic way.

At that point, I felt exhausted, as if I had struggled through those raging floodwaters myself. My earlier chapters, while being so fulfilling to write, had taken much perseverance—and now that I was on the other side of this difficult part of the plot, I wondered if I had what it took to unfold the rest in a sensitive way that would touch readers’ hearts. Had I perhaps forgotten how to write a novel, after living in the world of non-fiction for so long? Was I capable of allowing the story to develop as it needed to?

With these questions bombarding my brain, I soon descended into a morass of self-doubt and self-pity—until I remembered how helpful the Psalms had been to me during past writing struggles. I began reading them yet again and eventually came to Psalm 18:16-19:

He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. … He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.

While that dear little boy in my novel might not have been rescued from actual deep waters, I knew God would rescue me. At other times in my life when I felt things were all too hard, I have experienced that loving hand grasping me firmly and helping me stand on solid ground again. God has drawn me out of many deep waters—and I know God will delight to do that for you too.

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Jo 17I love the Psalms. Time and time again, I come back to them—particularly when I am busy. In my old Bible that I am reluctant to pension off because I know where everything is in it, there are many verses in the Psalms I have highlighted via a wiggly line drawn beside them. And many of these are now etched in my mind, so that they feel like old friends when I come across them again.

Yet I often still find surprises along the way. One morning recently, we needed leave home earlier than usual, in order to mind our grandchildren for the day. I rushed around, organising this and that, but then found myself with a few minutes spare before we actually had to walk out our door. So I decided I could read at least a few verses of the psalm I was up to and thus have it in my mind as we drove to our daughter’s house. I opened my Bible to Psalm 116—yes, I had read that yesterday. I turned the page and there before me was Psalm 117—all two verses of it!

Praise the Lord, all your nations; extol him, all you peoples. For great is his love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.

That was it! I was sure I had never seen this tiny psalm before, yet I must have. Despite its brevity, I decided it packed quite a punch. And it was just the right length for me to remember, as we hurried out to begin a day full of interesting activities with our two young grandchildren.

Later that evening, as I sat down to re-read my huge psalm of the day and ponder on it some more, I decided it pretty much sums up in a nutshell what our amazing God is like and how we are called to respond to him.

Great is his love toward us’—that to me surely gets straight to the heart of the gospel. In my own life, it was God’s love that first drew me to him as a fifteen-year-old. Even after all these years, I can still remember thinking, ‘Wow! God knows me! And God loves me!’ Then many years later in my life, I believe God gave me a glimpse of his amazing love for me all over again one New Year’s Eve. I saw in my mind a picture of someone whom I knew was Jesus holding me as a baby and looking down at me with the most incredible love shining from his face. He was speaking tenderly and saying over and over again, ‘Wow—Jo-Anne!’—and I knew I would remain loved and secure in his arms forever, just as this psalm goes on to say. Whatever happened in my life, the Lord would remain faithful.

And, after more than fifty-five years, that is still my testimony. God has rescued me so many times, picked me up and held me close until I was strong enough to stand again. So what can I do but praise the Lord from my heart, as The Message version of this psalm encourages us all to do?

Praise God, everybody! Applaud God, all people! His love has taken over our lives; God’s faithful ways are eternal. Hallelujah!

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Jo 17Sometimes, forgetting things can be advantageous, don’t you think? I don’t mean that slight absentmindedness that leaves me unable to remember where I have put things in our new unit because there are so many more cupboards than there were in our old house! Can you imagine the fun I had in our first Christmas here, hunting for those bonbons I had stashed away somewhere—or even some of our grandchildren’s presents I had bought earlier and hidden who knows where? But what I do mean, for example, are those times I when I somehow made a fool of myself and felt embarrassed or ashamed as a result. I may still recall something of the incident, but can more readily laugh at myself and let it go, while appreciating the things I learnt through the whole experience.

Yet there are many more instances where it is definitely not advantageous to forget things—or people. There is a family anecdote one of our children often tells when they feel a little hard done by for one reason or another. ‘Well, I’m not surprised this has happened’ they might say, ‘because, after all, you drove home and left me playing at the Lego table in the newsagent when I was a child. And another time, you left me sitting watching TV in the electrical store in the main street!’

Fortunately, they are joking when they remind us of these events in an injured voice. Yes, these two incidents really happened—and both times, my husband was the culprit! Just to reassure you, however,  on each occasion, it wasn’t long before he realised what he had done and scuttled back to find our poor lost child, who didn’t seem concerned at all and had barely missed him!

It’s not good to forget people—or their names, as I often do. But it is even more concerning when we forget who God is and what God has done for us in our lives. Recently, I came across some very sobering verses in the Psalms:

When our fathers were in Egypt, they gave no thought to your miracles, they did not remember your many kindnesses, and they rebelled by the sea, the Red Sea. Yet he saved them for his name’s sake, to make his mighty power known. He rebuked the Red Sea, and it dried up; he led them through the depths as through a desert. He saved them from the hand of the foe; from the hand of the enemy he redeemed them. The waters covered their adversaries; not one of them survived. Then they believed his promises and sang his praise. But they soon forgot what he had done and did not wait for his counsel. Psalm 106:7-13

Wow—what a challenge! As I enter this new year of 2018, have I truly remembered all the times God led and rescued me in 2017? Have I allowed all this to strengthen my faith in God? Have I turned and praised God for it all with a truly thankful heart? Or have I, like those Israelites, forgotten what God has done for me and forged ahead in my own strength?

May you and I remember those many past kindnesses of God well—and remember too to wait patiently for God’s counsel as we move into 2018!

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Jo 12I enjoy doing crossword puzzles and was recently given a crossword book that is just the right level for my slightly addled brain. This enables me to take a break from writing now and then, yet still play with all those fascinating words in the English language. What fun!

The other day, while tackling one of those mega crosswords that completely fill a large page, however, I found myself flummoxed. There seemed to be so many clues that could be taken different ways. For example, one clue simply said ‘hide’. So … did that mean the noun ‘hide’ or the verb ‘hide’? But if it meant the noun, ‘hide’ can have at least two different meanings. Or take the clue ‘sort’. Did that refer to the verb ‘sort’ or the noun meaning ‘type’? And what about that one little word ‘dear’? Did it mean the opposite to ‘cheap’? Or did it mean ‘sweetheart’ or ‘beloved’?

But most confusing of all was the clue that simply said ‘badgers’. Now I took that to mean those animals called badgers. ‘They must have another obscure name,’ I thought. ‘I’d never know that.’ So I left the spot blank until the end. Then, when I saw that the answer had to be ‘pesters’, it finally dawned on me that my ‘badgers’ clue meant the verb ‘harasses’ or ‘nags’, rather than any animal! There I was, trying to think of a scientific name for a badger when the clue meant something quite different.

As I thought about those crossword challenges, I began to wonder how often I myself confuse or mislead others with those words that roll off my tongue so readily each day—or spill out onto my computer screen. How glibly I can say one thing yet be thinking the exact opposite! How many times I seem to opt for those pious-sounding words and phrases that sound good but lack integrity and can leave others feeling puzzled or, even worse, discouraged!

There are some verses in Psalm 139 that have always challenged me about the words I speak—or write.

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord. Psalm 139:1-4

Hmm. To me, it is a very comforting thought that God sees into the depths of my heart and knows me through and through. There is no pretending with God—and that is so freeing, don’t you think? But it also challenges me deeply that God knows every word I utter, before it even leaves my mouth. I cannot fool God with my words. I cannot get away with saying one thing and meaning another with God. And it does not please God whenever I try to fool others around me either.

So Lord, this day and forever, may all the words I speak and write honour you and be as honest and unambiguous as I can make them. And, as King David also prayed:

May the words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Psalm 19:14

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Jo 23You have to hand it to King David. So many times in the psalms, he doesn’t use any softly, softly approach when it comes to asking God for help. I have to say that’s a bit different from many of the prayers I’ve prayed over the years—and from some I’ve heard prayed aloud in public meetings at times.

‘Lord, we just ask you to heal her now, if that’s your will. But if it isn’t, please just show her what she needs to do to get better.’

‘Dear God, we invite you to be with us today. We welcome you to this place. We know you are here anyway, but please just be close to each one of us.’

Now I’ve discovered God is truly gracious and does hear and answer such prayers. Despite our slightly weird theology at times, God sees our hearts and knows what we need before we even ask (Matt 6:8). God isn’t confused by the words we use when we pray in public either. And David knew that, since in Psalm 139:4 we read: Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord.

But how refreshing it is to read those honest, gut-wrenching cries from David’s heart! Recently, I came across Psalm 35 again which begins:

Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me. Take up shield and buckler; arise and come to my aid. Brandish spear and javelin against those who pursue me.

There I was, cheering David on as I read and thinking about how this prayer could apply to the challenges in my own life, when I was stopped dead by his words at the end of verse 3:

Say to my soul, “I am your salvation.”

Hmmm … could David actually be telling God what to tell him in return? It’s as if he’s saying to God: ‘I think you said you’d save me. I was convinced of that—but now I’m not so sure. I want to know that deep down inside me, so please tell me it’s true.’ In The Message version, Peterson puts it this way:

Reassure me: let me hear you say, “I’ll save you.”

But I think there might be a bit more to it too, given David’s bold approach in the rest of the psalm. It’s as if David is calling God to account—as if he’s saying something like: ‘God, this is what you told me you’d do for me, but it doesn’t look like that’s happening. So if you tell me you’re my salvation, you’d better make good on your promise—because if you don’t, then you won’t have lived up to your name!’

What a challenge David is to me in the way he talks with God! And God doesn’t seem to have been offended, but rather sees David as ‘a man after his own heart’ (1 Sam 12:14). Surely it is that David understood God’s heart very well and, because of that, knew he could be completely honest and that God would not turn him away.

I want to pray big, fat, bold prayers like David did. I want to be a person after God’s own heart. Don’t you?

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A few weeks ago, I decided it was high time we attacked our back ‘garden’, which for some strange reason had become an amorphous mass of weed. I dug and pulled and piled up tons of rubbish—and eventually these beds were ready again for replanting.

I decided to choose very hardy, quick growing ground cover plants that would suit a sunny rockery area and also be relatively inexpensive. I came home with some bargains—a few humble old gazania plants, a convolvulus, two varieties of portulaca, several ‘Million Bells’ plants like mini-petunias, some lobelia and a small lillipilli tree. I planted them all out straight away—just in time to receive all the rain we have had lately.

Now I was sure some of these plants would wither and die in the first few days. The soil in these beds is by and large so poor—and some areas are almost as hard as the nearby rocks. But amazingly, most have grown well and are now bearing bright, new flowers.

But here’s where I stand back in awe and ponder our amazingly creative God. Yes, all these plants are fairly common and—well—garden variety! Yet as I look closer, each one of the tiny flowers that has now appeared blows me away with its shape and colour and intricate markings. Even the widely different textures and shades of greens in their foliage are fascinating—not to mention the fact that one of my portulacas is able to produce an array of differently coloured blooms from one and the same plant! As for the flowers on the common old gazanias, while they are similar in colour, they still vary amazingly in the pretty markings on their petals. All this abundance in my own humble backyard, with minimal assistance from me.

Yet something else amazes me even more. When I complained about the terrible state of our garden, various friends told me not to worry about it. After all, almost no one else sees it. They’re right too—and even we don’t go down there all that often. But that doesn’t seem to make any difference to God. These hardy, little plants produce their bright array of flowers whether anyone sees them or not. And this is even more true when it comes to our Australian wildflowers. Years ago, during a wonderful drive over the Alpine Way in southern New South Wales one Christmas, I saw so many tiny, tiny flowers, each formed so perfectly. But how many more were tucked away in rock crevices or down beside some mountain stream where no one would ever venture?

What an amazingly diverse and liberal Creator we have, even when there is no one to admire such marvellous, natural works of art! Our God is the original, perfect Creator, from whom all our own creativity flows. I look back at the seven books I have written with gratitude, knowing I could not have woven these stories without God’s creativity at work in and through me. And even as I write this, I know I can only do so because I am made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). How much in this world and within ourselves do we take for granted, as if no master hand has designed and sustains everything? May we instead join with the words of the psalmist in Psalm 95:

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.

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Lately, God seemed to have fallen into the habit of getting my attention in unexpected and very interesting ways.  Last week, I shared how a friend sent me an encouraging poem just for me about resting in God’s love at exactly the same time as I was putting similar thoughts into words in the book I am currently writing. I had hardly had time to get over that when God snuck up on me again and caught me by surprise. I guess some might say these were happy coincidences, but from my perspective, they sure have a lot of the hallmarks of God about them.

It’s my habit to read a psalm each day as well as some other part of Scripture. Whenever I get through all one hundred and fifty of them, I start all over again. It’s never boring – there is always something to encourage or challenge me in each one of them. Recently, I started my psalm journey yet again, just at a point in writing my current book when I was feeling particularly vulnerable. This book deals with some aspects of my own spiritual journey and thus involves checking back in my journals I have kept over many years now. I was up to a spot where I had written some rather doleful entries at a difficult and draining time of my life. It brought back many memories – I could feel those dark emotions I was reading about stirring in me all over again and beginning to take over, just as they had then.

This was not good, I realised. I knew I needed to identify with how I was feeling then in order to write about it well – but not to the extent of taking it all on board again. So I picked up my bible and quickly turned to the Psalms. I found I was up to Psalm Three – and straight away, verse three caught my attention:

But you are a shield around me, O Lord; you bestow glory on me and lift up my head.

Yes, I said to myself – God was my shield at that time and did ‘lift up my head’! And God will do that again for me now as I write this book and protect me from getting too ‘bogged down’ in it all.

Then I resolutely turned to my old journal again. Here were some entries from 2002 when I was on leave for four weeks. I had written out a prayer, part of which read: Lord, I feel like I have been in a ‘far country’, away from the enjoyment of your presence. But I’m on the way home now. … I feel you know my great weakness and understand.  …Turn me around – show me the way forward from here.

I continued reading. The next journal entry was two days later. All I had written was – Psalm 3:3!

 But you are a shield around me, O Lord; you bestow glory on me and lift up my head.

I gasped out loud. God spoke to me then through these words. And now God has spoken to me again – about the very same thing through the very same words.

Anyone would think God knows what is happening in my life at any given point – even what I’m writing about! Anyone would think God is loving and faithful and mighty and comforting and encouraging!

Are you anyone?

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