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Psalm 32 and Finding Your Voice

When I was in middle school, I quit talking.

This is how I start most conversations when people ask me to tell my story. I became a Christian at five years old, so I don’t have a crazy salvation story to share. I just have a story of hardship and God’s faithfulness, which one day turned into doubt and despair, and which ultimately reminds me that God is in the smallest of details even when I believe, “[God’s] hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer,” (Psalm 32:4).

Verse 3 of David’s psalm struck me as so succinctly encapsulating how it feels to stay silent. He says, “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long,” (Psalm 32: 3). Based on the rest of the passage, I believe David is speaking of staying silent instead of confessing his sin to God, because once he does, he says he is blessed. That said, I imagine David also had days when he stayed silent to other people because he felt afraid and sought shelter in God. He says, “You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance,” (Psalm 32:7). Staying silent from fear feels different from the silence of rebellion.

I spent the first part of eighth grade walking through fluorescent white hallways with my eyes trained on the speckled, white laminate below me. My brain only input as much information about avoid the black backpack, don’t run into the blue sweatshirt, and those guys are really loud as would get me through the halls with as little interpersonal contact as possible. I had refined the method over the span of four years, and I was pretty good at it. For some reason, though, a guy in my choir class couldn’t stand for the silence. He spent three minutes every other day walking me to computer class and alternating between asking me, “Why don’t you talk?” and “Can I wear blue socks with black shoes?” (He knew the second question almost got me to answer.) But at that point, I was so afraid of the words that might come out of my mouth, and that the words might end up hurting someone, that I refused to say anything at all. A dull, constant loneliness seemed less painful than the stabbing throb of knowing my words had cost me a friendship.

Eventually, I did speak to him. Then, I thought we had lost him. I spent a good week of my life thinking every time the phone rang, it would be my best friend’s mom calling to say the boy had killed himself. Thankfully, that call never came.

I didn’t learn to talk again immediately after that week, but I do think that week jolted me awake. That, and another boy in my gym class asking me how I could still smile when the other girls were so mean to me, and I was too shocked to say “Because Jesus” before he ran off to play basketball. I was learning that staying silent could cause as much pain as speaking.

I am thankful for God’s faithfulness during those years. He kept sending these boys I didn’t know to ask me random questions that stunned me speechless. And in the years since then, He has continued to send people who force me to speak, including my husband and some of my dearest friends. As David points out in verse 3, staying silent slowly eats away at your spirit until you feel dead inside. That’s why I’ve learned to pray for courage and speak up. I’ll mess up the words nine times out of ten, but it feels so much better to have the words out in the open instead of eating me up like a disease on the inside.

I’d like to end today’s memory with the praise at the end of the psalm. David gives us such a hopeful exhortation to leave with. I pray over you today, “Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” (Psalm 32:11). Shout for joy so those words don’t get trapped inside you. Someone just might need to hear them.

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Psalm 31, Christmas, and Luke 23

I opened to the Psalm for today and was struck by the title, “Into Your Hand I Commit My Spirit.” For some reason, the words echoed in my head in the voice of my college Bible professor. I could picture him standing at the front of the room, looking mildly uncomfortable in his jet black blazer, and shaking his hand in deep concentration as he repeated the words. But, I remembered him quoting Jesus when he said the words, and I was currently reading a psalm of David. Thankfully, Google can be a pretty quick concordance.

Luke 23:46 says, “Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last.” It’s a unique version of Jesus’s last words. Mark and Matthew both quote Jesus as saying, “‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'” and reflects the opening lines of Psalm 22 (Mark 15:34, Matthew 27:46). In John, Jesus’ last words are, “It is finished,” (John 19:30). So, what does Luke 23 have to do with Psalm 31?

Psalm 31 shows David beseeching God for rescue from his enemies. Regardless of the outcome, David praises God and trusts that He will not let David be overtaken by his enemies. David expresses deep pain from the rejection of his neighbors. He then requests that God will have justice on the wicked and thanks God for His goodness to the faithful. The last two verses of Psalm 31 exhort believers to “Love the LORD, all you his saints!” and stay faithful to the One who maintains justice.

It makes sense that Jesus would reflect this psalm in His sacrifice on the cross. He endured horrible physical pain, the mocking of the crowds, and intense mental stress. In spite of this, He remained obedient to God’s will and sacrificed His perfect life in the place of our sinful ones.

As we spend today remembering the sweet baby lying in a manger and celebrating His humble entry to this world, we also want to remember the reason He came. We focus on love at Christmas time, and if we look at Luke 23 and Psalm 31, we’ll see that Jesus’ love for us goes even deeper than we could possibly understand. Merry Christmas, everyone, and may we all feel His love surrounding us tonight.

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Psalm 27 and Making People Feel Seen

I have devoted most of my recent podcast listening to the Don’t Keep Your Day Job podcast by Cathy Heller. I just love her emphasis on making people feel seen and using that idea as the motivation for our work. Some of the most heart-filling moments of my life have been when friends or family make a comment that lets me know they were listening and that they understood. I think that’s why I so greatly enjoy making people cry with my writing. (Happy tears, of course.) It means by God’s grace I wrote something to make someone feel noticed and cared for. David seems to speak of this in Psalm 27:10 – “For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the LORD will take me in.” How beautiful that God gives us the gift of caring for and noticing others as a reflection of how He cares for and notices us!

We spent last weekend in the mountains with a couple of the dearest people on the face of the planet. It was one of those weekends when my dominating inner introvert didn’t mind interacting with people for three days straight. We drove from Pigeon Forge to Gatlinburg to walk the Skybridge that my suitemate and I were so excited about trying while our husbands cautiously agreed to join us. We meandered the strip and ran in and out of shops looking for Christmas presents for our families. We ate lunch at 3, had dinner at 8, and didn’t mind if we spent an hour waiting in the Skybridge line a second time to see what Gatlinburg looked like covered in Christmas lights. It was one of those weekends where everyone laughed and took turns DJing music and could just enjoy being.

We went to see the Hatfield and McCoy dinner show. We sat down at checkered-covered tables, and a thick-accented waiter in overalls and a denim ball cap came to ask what we wanted to drink. “Crick water” was an option, he said, “but don’t worry, I took the fish out.” We ate fried chicken and “squirrel brain” barbecue. The waiter poured soup out of a pitcher and asked if we wanted “naner or chocolate” pudding. He disappeared as soon as his five or so tables were cleared of all but drinks and pudding.

My suitemate started wondering how many of the servers were also acting in the show. One pre-show singer bounced off the front of the stage, tied on an apron, and started making rounds. Sure enough, when the show started and the stage turned into a swimming pool, my suitemate called to the table, “Look, that’s our waiter!” I scanned the group diving into the pool and could hardly tell who was who until the dogs started diving and swimming to the ladder at the edge.

It was an impressive show, and as soon as the main actors bowed and the lights came up, our waiter was back to clean off the table and reset for the next show in thirty minutes. “Well, I thought he was one of the divers, but his hair is dry,” my suitemate said. Her husband dared her to ask the waiter if he was in the show. When my husband stopped the waiter to pass him our tip, she asked him.

“Yes, ma’am,” he was a diver. She asked how his hair was already dry. “Oh, it’s not. I’ve just got a hat on.” He took his hat off and ran his hands through his hair to show us. We thanked him for his hard work and filed out of the theater with the rest of the diners.

It amazed me how easily she could talk to strangers. I was in awe of how naturally she could ask questions and reach out to people in a way that made them feel seen. I wanted to be like that, but oh, I thought, having to talk to people, having to go up to them instead of the other way around! My inner introvert shrunk back towards the shadow in the corner.

The whole concept has been nagging at me for the past week. I went to a women’s event at church where I spent half of the night awkwardly standing at the edge of circles until one of my friends came up to talk to me. I kept thinking about my suitemate’s bravery and wished I had the social grace to do the same thing. When I read Psalm 27 today, the first verse struck me – “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

I long for that kind of courage, so Psalm 27 became my prayer for today. When I doubt my social aptitude, I pray verse 11 – “Teach me your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.” When I shrink in general fear, I pray verse 14 – “Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” Lord willing, one day I’ll have that courage to ask a question of total strangers that lets them know I see their hard work or their suffering, and I care.

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A Letter to the Church about Anxiety and Depression

Dear Church,

I prayed before I wrote this letter today. I read Psalm 23 and asked God what He would have me say about one of my favorite passages. When the thought of anxiety and depression came to mind, I said an extra prayer. I know only a fraction of all there is to know about mental illness – the causes, the symptoms, the treatments. I can only speak from my own experiences, but God gives us our story for a reason, and I’m doing my best to use it for good.

Psalm 23:1 – “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Growing up in evangelical culture and attending a contemporary Southern Baptist church, I heard plenty of exhortations to read my Bible, pray as much as I could, and go to church every week. When we spoke of sadness, we always ended with God is our joy! When we spoke of worry, we quoted Philipians 4:6-7 to “not worry about anything.” In fact, some said, it is a SIN to worry and not be content with God’s provision!

I was first introduced to the idea of anxiety and depression as a physical condition in my AP Psychology class senior year of high school. Synapses, neurotransmitters, hormones… I never knew so much of the body was controlled by the release of specific chemicals. What I did know was how it felt to struggle for breath and white-knuckle a steering wheel as I started driving over a small mountain I had not intended to cross in the pitch dark. I knew what tired felt like when I got home from a band-trip-turned sour and all I wanted to do was lay on the couch and snooze. I knew how it felt to toss and turn and pray for hours at night but not fall asleep, and to do so for weeks or months at a time.

Psalm 23:4 – “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.”

I can’t say whether David ever struggled with anxiety and depression, but I think many people who have experienced mental illness could relate that heavy darkness to the “valley of the shadow of death.” Even so, David points to God as his hope in a horrible situation. God is not necessarily the almighty fixer in this passage. He is more than that. He is the reason David keeps fighting the darkness, the reason that David can lift his head when he really doesn’t want to. God doesn’t just take the problem away; He gets David through it.

To those in the church who would say that people struggling with mental illness should pray or read their Bible more, I ask that you consider 2 Corinthians 12:7-9. Paul says,

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

Anxiety and depression is not deserved or a consequence of not being faithful enough. Mental illness is a shard of brokenness in this fallen world, just like painful childbirth and weak bodies (Genesis 3:16-20.) Instead of piling more rules and guilt on those struggling with mental illness, we should embrace them and guide them to a wholistic approach to coping. We do not deny cancer patients medical treatment; we pray that God will extend the efficacy of the treatments and wait on Him to do a miracle. If the cancer does not go away, we do not blame the patient for being unfaithful; we learn to accept God’s goodness even if the healing miracle never comes.

Why don’t we do the same for mental illness?

Sincerely,

Ashton

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6 Ways to Praise God’s Power

Psalm 21:13 ESV – “Be exalted, O LORD, in your strength! We will sing and praise your power.”

The phrase “in your strength” sticks out to me in this passage. So often, my strength fails me. For instance, I helped with childcare for a prospective church member meeting last week, and I’m pretty sure that wiping the snot off of one sweet four-year-old’s face is the cause of the sinus headache I’ve had the past three days. (I even washed my hands… c’est la vie.) But it is the LORD’s strength that we exalt, not our own. We sing and praise HIS power.

I’m definitely not the best at praising God’s power. David spends a whole psalm giving examples of God’s justice and faithfulness for which “the king rejoices” (Psalm 21:1.) If I don’t sit down with a pen and paper or with this laptop, I will most likely get distracted after praising God for one singular thing He has done. So, if you are like me and need some ideas for ways to praise God, here’s a list of six ideas below.

1.) Make a Mind Map.

I’m pretty sure we called these “thinking webs” when I was in 2nd grade, but the principle is the same. Start with a central bubble that lists the topic you are thinking about. In this instance, God will go in your central bubble. Then, for every trait you recall, write it in a bubble shooting off of the central bubble. I love making these really complicated and extending long chains of bubbles.

Extra credit: For each trait you recall about God, write down a corresponding event where you saw God fulfill that trait in your life.

2.) Make a list.

This one is the more obvious cousin of Mind Mapping. If circles aren’t your thing, just make a straight list of traits about God. Listing out the things I knew to be true of God really helped me through a season of doubt.

3.) Draw sketches of God’s character.

Maybe you see God in a child’s laugh or a caterpillar’s stripes more than you see God in abstract terms. If so, that’s great! You probably recognize God’s creative, humorous side more than the theologians stuck in rounds of Biblical hermeneutics. Use this gift to your advantage! Sketch or photograph those things that best reflect God’s character to you.

4.) Play music that reflects God’s character.

Music can magically reflect so many different emotions in the world around us. If creating music is your thing, then play the bright, major keys that remind you of God’s playful, loving side! Try playing minor swells that reflect verses like Psalm 21:9, “You will make them as a blazing oven when you appear. The LORD will swallow them up in his wrath, and fire will consume them.” Use the music lilting inside of you to tease out those complex aspects of God’s character we humans have difficulty understanding.

5.) Study science.

If you look at the veins on a leathery leaf falling from a tree, you will most likely wind up with a feeling of awe at something greater than yourself. At least, I usually have that reaction when I stop to study the minute workings of life more closely. Maybe you need something more tangible than letters and emotion to recognize God’s character. Look around and see how many tiny miracles are causing life to function that most of us don’t even notice. On the rare instances I stop to recognize this, I’m usually left with, “Wow, God!” That’s all the prayer I need in that moment.

6.) Study numbers in Scripture.

Numbers in the Bible often come with symbolic meaning. If counting makes you happy, try counting generations in genealogies and comparing it to where that number is used elsewhere in the Bible. See how many 7’s and 12’s you can find. Research other important numbers in the Bible and see if you can find them in your everyday life.

Do you have other ways of praising God’s power? Let me know in the comments below!

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Parade Candy Prayers

Psalm 18 begins, “I love you, O LORD, my strength.”

What a way to begin a song or prayer!

We learn from the introduction that this psalm was written by David when he was “delivered from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul” (ESV translation).

David said “the cords of death encompassed me” (Psalm 18:5) and no joke! In 1 Samuel 19, King Saul keeps going back and forth between welcoming David into his house and trying to kill him! In verses 9-10, it says Saul literally “tried to pin [David] to the wall with a spear.” I imagine that’s not quite the response David was looking for when he played his lyre; he probably would have preferred rotten tomatoes.

In response to the multitudinous attacks on David’s life that continued for years after he fled Saul’s house, the most beautiful thing happened. David said, “In my distress I called upon the LORD; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears,” (Psalm 18:6, emphasis added.)

Sometimes it’s hard to believe our prayers actually go anywhere other than the ceiling. At a Wednesday night youth group service in high school, I sat in a circle with seven or eight other girls. It was dark because the walls were purple and the floors were charcoal carpet. We huddled in a corner of the hallway between the food stand and a support pillar. I looked up at the black-tile ceiling and made a tossing motion. “Sometimes, it feels like throwing candy at a parade. I’m throwing prayers up to Heaven and hoping one sticks. It doesn’t always feel like they’re going anywhere, so I just keep throwing.”

“Parade candy prayers! I’ll have to remember that!” our no-makeup-wearing, always-soft-smiling leader said.

There have been days when I walked into our windowless little sanctuary at church, listened to the first worship song of the service, and thought, “I just don’t believe this today.” It sure didn’t feel like God was listening, that He had good plans, or that my prayers were doing anything other than getting caught in that space between the Earth-bound ceiling and the golden floor of Heaven.

It finally hit me between the third and fourth worship songs one Sunday. I wasn’t going to feel God’s promises into existence. I had days when my brain didn’t feel much of anything, so I certainly wasn’t going to create truth and hope through emotion.

I had to fight to believe.

David was a pretty good fighter. I mean, he killed a giant with a slingshot and a stone when he was so young his dad didn’t even bring him in from the shepherd fields to join the family anointing (1 Samuel 16-17). I think David sometimes had to fight to believe, too. He knew that even if his prayers seemed to hit the ceiling of Earth and get trampled underfoot on the floor of Heaven, he could say, “For it is you who light my lamp; the LORD my God lightens my darkness,” (Psalm 18:28).

I hope this encourages you today if you feel like your prayers are going nowhere. Keep praying, friends! God has the power to “lighten our darkness,” and He “shows steadfast love to his anointed,” (Psalm 18:28 & 50). It may not feel like it, but we can fight to believe God’s faithfulness is true.