Playing Psalms: Games and Goodness — Follow the Leader

While I may not have been a big fan of games like “Red Rover” in my growing up years, there was one game I loved: “Follow the Leader.” Being at the head of a line of friends who trailed behind me required no physical strength, no particular stratagem, nor any specific skill — except maybe creativity to keep those being led entertained and challenged.

It was quite the thing to have people willingly do whatever I did — spin in circles, hop on one foot, or run around a tree. Oh the power! 

As much as I loved the role of Leader in the game, I also enjoyed being led. It was fun to see where each Leader would take us and what silly antics they’d have us do. 

There is One, however, who never relegates his authority: God. He is always the Leader. It is our choice, however, to follow the Leader. Or not.

Today, we’re headed out to the hilly pastures to follow the Shepherd Leader. 

The Lord Is My Shepherd 

In its short, six verses, Psalm 23 reveals much about God’s character, but most of us today don’t know enough about shepherds and sheep to grasp the perfection of David’s metaphor:

1 The Lord is my shepherd…

Psalm 23:1a

Because David grew up as a shepherd, he would have known the role and duties of a shepherd intimately. But why compare the Creator of the universe with this lowly profession?

For starters, Shepherds are very good leaders. Well, let’s qualify that. Good shepherds are good leaders. The kind sheep will follow.

Good shepherds are consumed with their flocks’ safety and health, going to extremes to preserve and protect them — extremes like sleeping among them to keep predators at bay, inspecting each sheep everyday for injury and harmful pests, and walking with them for miles to find fresh fields for their grazing. To be blunt, shepherds do anything necessary for their flocks’ good.

Like a good shepherd, God stays close to us.  

  • He offers His Holy Spirit to protect and lead us (see 2 Thessalonians 3:3, John 6:13). 
  • He teaches us how to fight our enemy (see Ephesians 6:10-17).
  • He surrounds us with angels to fight for us (see 2 Kings 6:16-17 or Matthew 26:53). 

God as our shepherd means he cares. He’s there for us. And He will go to great lengths to protect us and provide for us, hence David’s ending of the first verse:

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

Psalm 23:1 NIV (emphasis mine)

At its core, “I lack nothing” is a statement of faith —  kind of like saying, “I have God. What else could I need?” But, another way of looking at it could be we are so content in God’s care that we don’t crave anything else (Keller, 29).

What it doesn’t mean — we won’t ever lack. 

We all know that some days we lack money. Other days we lack friends. And the list goes on. Jesus, our self-proclaimed Good Shepherd (John 10:11), warns us that there will be lack, or trouble (see John 16:33). But we can take heart because He’ll be with us (see Matthew 28:20) — even in our lack.

The Game: Meadows and Streams — David invites us to follow our Shepherd Leader. Let’s follow Him and see why lying down is a good thing!

2  He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,

Psalm 23:2 NIV
Photo by Ambitious Creative Co. – Rick Barrett on Unsplash

A fun fact I learned reading about sheep in Phillip Keller’s book, A Shepherd Looks At Psalm 23, is that things have to be just right before sheep will lie down — four specific things, in fact. For sheep to be “at rest there must be a definite sense of freedom of fear, tension, aggravations, and hunger” (42). Guess how much of that the sheep can control? None. Only the shepherd makes it possible for sheep to feel at peace and full enough to actually rest. 

It is well-known among the good shepherds of our world that once sheep are fed, the very best way to help them feel safe and content is for the shepherd to be present with them. 

I type that and my pulse accelerates. Guess what I can’t do if I’m anxious? Sleep. And if my stomach is growling endlessly or my reflux is attacking full-throttle, getting some solid shut-eye just ain’t happening. Then there’s the buzzing gnat or the argument I had with my husband replaying in my head — these, too, prevent me from getting the rest I need. Just. Like. Sheep.

And, just like sheep, I’ve learned that the only way I can let go of the angst or lay down the anger is to go to God. Even more recently, I have discovered the source of my truest rest — soul rest — only comes from entering God’s presence. 

Sleepless nights are the worst, but when I intentionally look for God — call on His name, read His Word — I find Him. Finding myself in His presence feels a lot like laying down on the cool green grasses of a beautiful meadow.

Maybe the only thing better would be sitting by a quiet stream. 

As we’ll see so many times in this little “follow the leader” exercise, it’s the shepherd, not the sheep, who finds the fresh, healthy water for his thirsty sheep. He literally leads his sheep to water. And they drink. 

Spiritually, we people are a thirsty flock. The only problem is that if we don’t look to our Shepherd, we’ll try to satisfy our thirst with any dirty pool of water that presents itself (Keller, 59). 

Like sheep, it’s our nature to think we can slake our thirst on our own. Too often, though, we settle for the tempting offers around us — those stagnant, infested puddles. The better option — look for the Shepherd and follow Him to water that truly quenches. 

Lest we doubt, Matthew 5:6 captures Jesus’ promise, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Jesus goes so far as to invite all who thirst to come to Him for living water (John 7:37-38). Thirsty?

The Game: Souls and Paths — Sometimes we lose our way, but following our Leader can help! 

3  he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.

Psalm 23:3 NIV

Words matter. The word “refresh” here makes me think of a spa or a cool drink of lemonade on a hot day. And, I suppose those aren’t bad comparisons. They just fall short. The New King James Version uses the word “restores,” and that packs a little more punch — to restore something is to make it new.

The Hebrew meaning actually hints at the idea of bringing back. God, our Shepherd, brings back our souls.

From doubt.
From despair.
From discouragement.
From death.

I don’t know if you know this, but sheep get lost. A lot. Like the kind of lost that just makes you scratch your head and wonder… 

Any time I’ve gotten lost, great relief washed over me when someone came looking for me, to offer direction. Our Shepherd knows we can get spiritually lost, and He wants us to know that He came as our Deliverer — to save us from all threats, even from ourselves. Whatever causes us to lose our way, however far off the path we go, God can find us, and He’ll always come for us. 

Just as our Shepherd will bring us back, He’ll also lead us well. He’ll keep us on the right, or good, paths.

So, sheep. Not only do they get lost, but they also have a deeply-rooted tendency to be creatures of habit — to the point that their paths become ruts and pastures become wastelands  (Keller, 83). Sheep need to be led on all the right paths if they’re to flourish.

We might say that sheep are stubborn. And, sometimes, not very smart.

What do we say of ourselves, then, when we see a startlingly similar pattern in our own behaviors? How often do we want to go our own direction or do it our way, stubbornly refusing any direction or leading from our Shepherd? How often are we like Paul who laments that he wants to do what is right but then doesn’t do it (Romans 7:15)?

The good news is that, like sheep, we have a Shepherd willing and waiting to lead us. On the right paths. The paths that are for our good. All we have to do is follow.

The Game: Valleys, Rods, and Staffs — We’ve chosen to follow our Leader, but then doubt creeps in when the path gets rough. Will we continue to trust and follow?

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

Psalm 3:4 NIV

In Israel, the best fields are up on the high, lush plateaus of the mountainous wilderness, which works out great in the summers, but the snow makes it less than ideal in the winters. That means the flock is always on the move — from home to mountain then back home. 

To get to those mountaintops, the shepherd has to lead his flock on paths through valleys. Valleys following streambeds that keep the sheep watered but can flood in sudden storms. Valleys that offer shelter — and rockslides. Valleys that provide nourishment — and predators. 

Photo by Thomas Jarrand on Unsplash

These valleys can be dark. Difficult. Dangerous. But the shepherd never leaves the sheep. He always, always goes with them. In fact, he will never lead the sheep where he hasn’t already scouted ahead to know the best paths.

So, when we read about “fearing no evil” in our dark valleys of life, it’s not written flippantly or even figuratively. Our Good Shepherd goes with us. Through every single thing we face, we are never alone. Not ever.

The sheep follow their shepherd, trusting his plan and his provision.

We have the choice as we walk through life: take our own paths or trust our Leader. David wants us to see that even when the passages are dark and dangerous and filled with death, we can put faith in our Shepherd — He sees the big picture, knows what lies ahead, and is always with us. We can trust Him. 

To emphasize the point, David praises God that His rod and staff comfort us.

Rod. Staff. Not the most iconic of American culture. But knowing what they are and how they’re used will help us understand how they can bring us comfort.

A shepherd’s rod best compares to a wooden club that he has learned how to use with deft and skill for defense and discipline. Descriptions of shepherds heaving rods at prowling wolves sound humanly impossible; they’re so quick, accurate, and deadly. The rod also gets thrown at wayward sheep — not to harm them but to prevent them from eating poisonous plants or from going off the path. The rod sends them scurrying to safety (Keller, 115).

If the rod protects and directs, we could look at God’s Word as His rod (Keller, 114). Like the shepherd’s wooden club, Scripture is an extension of God’s very being used for our benefit. 

Think back to a Christmas play with shepherds, and more than likely at least one shepherd held a staff — the long pole with the crook at the end. A shepherd’s staff — the very symbol of a shepherd — is an object of compassion used to gently lift a newborn lamb to return it to its mother, to direct sheep with a firm but gentle pressure, and to rescue sheep stuck in briars and brambles (Keller, 120-124).

In much the same way, our Good Shepherd uses His Holy Spirit to draw us closer to Himself, to whisper words of direction and wisdom in our ears, and to come after us when we’ve gotten ourselves all tangled up in sin. His staff, like that of the shepherd, is Comfort. 

When we find ourselves in the dark valleys of life, we can rely on the Word of God to give direction and the Spirit of God to offer comfort. And, we don’t have to fear because our Shepherd is near.

The Game: A Table and Some Oil — the paths we take as we follow our Leader eventually take us to the mountaintop, but even in that beautiful place we’ll encounter issues.

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

Psalm 23:5 NIV

I mentioned that I find great peace and comfort reciting Psalm 23 when I can’t sleep or feel anxious, but I have the hardest time remembering this particular verse. After much thought, I think it’s because I just haven’t understood it. I feel like we’ve gone from herding sheep to dining at the palace. 

Some say that the word “table” refers to those plateau mountains! In many cultures they’re called mesas, meaning table, and these sought after “tablelands” are exactly where shepherds take their sheep to pasture each summer (Keller 125). I can imagine, as a hungry sheep, stepping up onto a plateau after all the valley walking to see the “table before me.” What a gift! What gratitude!

Photo by Sebin Thomas on Unsplash

A good shepherd will go ahead of the flock to prepare this table by pulling the weeds that would kill, always keeping a protective eye out for any beasts out to get his precious flock. The enemies lurk. The shepherd protects.

As we follow our Good Shepherd, we’ll see that He goes before us to prepare all we need. He’ll also be faithful to point out the enemy and the pitfalls our enemy sets for us. We can delight in coming to the table of the Lord, and He will delight in seeing us follow His paths and flourish in His fields. 

But even at the full table, among the enemies, are the pests. 

Buzzing bugs and itchy infections can be the death of sheep, so the shepherd takes extra care to cover his sheep’s heads with oil — a natural healing balm for diseases and deterrent for annoying flies. Just as the flies can literally drive sheep mad, causing them to harm themselves, our minds can be taken captive by all sorts of worldly ideas and deceptions. And the only deliverance comes as an anointing of our minds. 

God’s anointing of our minds, our bodies, our lives holds promise and hope. As His oil flows over us and through us, gratitude and reverence overflow, splashing on all who are near. 

The Game: Dwelling Forever — following our Leader has proven to be rich and blessed, and our praises flood the heavens.

6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
    forever.

Psalm 23:6 NIV

That overflow carries us to the final verse of this Psalm, to a place of resting in the truth that no matter what life brings, our Shepherd’s goodness and love will always be with us — today and even as we look forward to eternity with Him. 

In case we’re tempted to think that’s the last of it, we need to remember as followers of the Good Shepherd that it’s not just about us — it’s about us taking what we’ve been given and sharing it freely among the other sheep of the world. All that comfort and protection, goodness and love — we can lay them out as an invitation to follow the Leader. 

God’s love always presents us with choices — will we choose to believe Him? Will we choose to trust Him? Will we choose to praise Him? Will we choose to follow Him? Love never forces itself on others, so much like the game Follow the Leader, we have the option to be led or to keep trying to forge our own paths in life. The imagery of the Good Shepherd helps us grasp the depth of God’s love and the good, good hands we’re in when we do, at last, follow the Leader.

What will you choose?

Ready to be led, Shelley Johnson

The header photo is by Ramin Talebi on Unsplash

PS’s — 

  1. If you’d like to read more about this amazing metaphor of God as shepherd, I recommend the book I cited in this post, W. Phillip Keller’s A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.
  2. We’ll do a wrap-up of our Playing Psalms series next week, then we’ll be off on a journey — of joy!
  3. Don’t miss a post. Sign up to receive them in your email.
  4. Finally, if you’d like to be further encouraged, I’ve created a “Playing Psalms” playlist on Spotify. Music is a gift that keeps on giving, so come back to the playlist anytime for the peace and direction the songs offer. You can “follow” the playlist so that it shows up in your library.

Playing Psalms: Games and Goodness — Flashlight Tag

I stepped out onto the dark, back porch to silence. 

Expecting a huge group of loud, pre-teen boys, I found the opposite. So, I listened for any sign that my boys and their friends were still somewhere in our yard. The moonlight was perfect for playing their favorite game — Flashlight Tag. 

My eyes straining, I finally saw it. A lone beam of light in the distance. Someone looking for friends hidden in the shadows. Then I heard it — squeals and screams as someone was spotted. They’d been tagged.

Satisfied, I headed back indoors. Play on!

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

The Light

We have a lot of words to describe 2020. Lonely. Disappointing. Frustrating. Maddening. Dark.  And now that we’re well into 2021, and it feels a lot the same, we realize that what we had hoped to leave behind continues to follow us.

We’ve waited. Complained. Argued. Fought. Hidden. Ignored. Belittled. Whined. Teased. Prayed. And still the pandemic wages on. The economy struggles. The tensions rise. 

In all this darkness, we’d love to see a light at the end of the tunnel. We want something or someone to put our hope in. Perhaps some of us are discovering that there’s really only One in whom to place our hope. Only One who offers light, who is the Light.

Last week we used the game of Tag to demonstrate how not to pray. We’re not meant to tag God constantly, treating Him like a genie in a bottle who grants our every wish. So, today, we’ll play with the Psalms and use Flashlight Tag as a picture of what prayer can be. 

Here it is in a nutshell: we’re all in the dark, and God is the one with the flashlight. Too often we think of prayer as a way to overcome stresses in life, and it does help with that, but prayer is also about getting in God’s presence where He can shine His light IN us — healing us, making us whole, growing us in our faith — so that His light can then shine THROUGH us to the rest of the world. 

The Psalms

We’ve seen through this series how well the authors of these poems of praise and lament capture all of our frustrations and hopes. They give words to what we feel. They point us to a path that leads us forward — the only real path that directs us in God’s ways. 

Many of the Psalms use the imagery of light and dark brilliantly to convey the difficult emotions and ideas of life, as well as lofty spiritual truths. Their words create for us the contrast of the way of fools versus the way of the wise. Their word pictures become a place to hang our hope. 

And, Psalms also help us visualize God — the One who is always present, who can see everything, who knows all. Our finite minds struggle to grasp the enormity of our God, yet we must try. So as we read through Psalm 139 today, let us have eyes to see God more clearly and to notice the use of the light and dark imagery. May its words light our way so we can enter God’s presence and pray.

Psalm 139:1-6 (NLT)

[NOTE: I’m posting Psalm 139 in the New Living Translation today because sometimes when we read Scripture in a familiar version, it’s too easy to jump to quick conclusions. We can miss hidden treasures because our minds think they already know. It happens to all of us, so enjoy and be challenged by a different translation!]

1 O Lord, you have examined my heart
    and know everything about me.
2 You know when I sit down or stand up.
    You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
3 You see me when I travel
    and when I rest at home.
    You know everything I do.
4 You know what I am going to say
    even before I say it, Lord.
5 You go before me and follow me.
    You place your hand of blessing on my head.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too great for me to understand!

This passage paints a vivid picture to show all the ways God knows everything about us. In religious vernacular, we’d say He’s omniscient. The Creator knows His creation. How do you feel as you read through the list of ways He knows you? 

For some, God may sound like George Orwell’s Big Brother, spying on us for his own benefit and ends. 

But, for those of us who have been getting to know God, we begin to grasp just how deep and wide His love for us is. Through the lens of love, we see God’s “knowing” as comforting — just as David, the author of this Psalm, says in verse 6, “such knowledge is too wonderful for me.” 

As we attempt to correlate this truth about God’s omniscience to prayer, we might wonder the point of praying at all if He already knows everything about us. Just like a good parent, God wants us to come to Him to share all we delight in and struggle with — even if He’s already aware — because He knows how good it is for us to speak these deep truths about ourselves to Him. He becomes our safe place — the keeper of our hearts and carer of our souls — as we reveal to Him all we are. The bonds between us strengthen. Our trust in Him grows.

Psalm 139:7-12

7 I can never escape from your Spirit!
    I can never get away from your presence!
8 If I go up to heaven, you are there;
    if I go down to the grave, you are there.
9 If I ride the wings of the morning,
    if I dwell by the farthest oceans,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
    and your strength will support me.
11 I could ask the darkness to hide me
    and the light around me to become night—
12 but even in darkness I cannot hide from you.
To you the night shines as bright as day.
    Darkness and light are the same to you.

In parallel fashion, this passage reveals something of God’s nature — He is always near. He’s omnipresent. It’s one thing for our minds to grasp that God knows everything. It’s quite another to fathom that He can be everywhere, for all time, all at once. And, in case you try to work that out in your mind, just know our finite minds really can’t. 

God is unlimited by time or space. Unlimited. That means God is always present. It’s fun reading David’s poetic descriptions of just how high or low we could try to go, and God would still be there.

In verses 11-12 we see the light and dark imagery, illustrating that God can never be limited or covered by darkness. Ever. 

I read once a description of what happens if we sit in a dark room and open the door to light. Little by little, as we crack open the door wider and wider, the light overtakes the darkness. But the reverse is not true. We don’t sit in a room full of light, crack open the door to darkness, and watch darkness overtake the room.

Photo by Joe Dudeck on Unsplash

How cool is that to think about?

That’s a small, limited view of God as light, but it helps us visualize how in His creation, darkness cannot hide the light. Light always overcomes darkness.  God. Is. Light. It’s why when the new earth and the new heaven are established (Revelation 21), no sun or moon is needed because “the glory of God gives it light” (verse 23). 

Entering God’s presence is stepping into light. Only His light-giving presence brings us the peace and joy our hearts long for — the kind that reign in us despite the storms that rage around us. 

Psalm 139:13-16

13 You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body
    and knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
    Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.
15 You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion,
    as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.
16 You saw me before I was born.
    Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out
    before a single day had passed.

In this passage, David moves into a place of understanding God that combines His omniscience and omnipresence — the location of our creation. The Creator made each of us, and because He knit us together in our mothers’ wombs, He really, really, really knows us. He knew us in the womb and saw us even before we were conceived. His presence and knowledge have no boundaries. Not that of a womb nor that of pre-life. 

For David, this is a marvelous wonder. Like him, we can be assured that God knows us so well that we can go to Him with everything in our hearts and minds, and none of it will surprise Him. Ironically, in my experience, sometimes as I open up to Him, I am surprised at what flows from me — as if a door unlatched and all those thoughts and feelings finally released. This is part of what makes prayer so powerful.

This passage can also help us to see ourselves as God’s children — each of us made wonderfully complex. Our identity is rooted in our Creator, our Father. Even when we don’t like what we see in the mirror or resent the physical imperfections of our bodies, we can trust that God loves us and claims us as His own. Always.

Psalm 139:17-18

17 How precious are your thoughts about me, O God.
    They cannot be numbered!
18 I can’t even count them;
    they outnumber the grains of sand!
And when I wake up,
    you are still with me!

These two verses capture David’s response to all that he has discovered about God, and he sounds pretty blown away by Him. If we think about King David, a man who wholly loved God, he was also a man who made major mistakes, including two biggies — adultery and murder. But when he went to God, confessed his sins and sought forgiveness, he was made whole by this God who knew him intimately. In other words, God knew exactly who and what He was forgiving, and He did it anyway. 

David’s response can be ours because God sees us, our true selves, and loves us anyway. There is nothing we have done or could do that would end that love He has for us. His love is unconditional. We don’t earn it. We can’t lose it. God will always be there. Always.

Psalm 139:19-22

19 O God, if only you would destroy the wicked!
    Get out of my life, you murderers!
20 They blaspheme you;
    your enemies misuse your name.
21 O Lord, shouldn’t I hate those who hate you?
    Shouldn’t I despise those who oppose you?
22 Yes, I hate them with total hatred,
    for your enemies are my enemies.

Just when you thought we’d escaped the lament, here it is. 😉

We’re witnessing David’s stream of thought, and though this passage may seem out of place in this Psalm, it captures what he’s thinking in the context of God’s omniscience and omnipresence. I thought Charles Spurgeon made the connection well, “As we delight to have the holy God always near us, so would we eagerly desire to have wicked men removed as far as possible from us.“

As Christians we often struggle with the Bible’s use of the word “hate.” Jesus, after all, teaches us to love our enemies, so how do we make sense of David’s hatred here? I’ll defer to Dr. Spurgeon once again, 

“To hate a man for his own sake, or for any evil done to us, would be wrong; but to hate a man because he is the foe of all goodness and the enemy of all righteousness, is nothing more nor less than an obligation. The more we love God the more indignant shall we grow with those who refuse him their affection.“

Charles Spurgeon

Dr. Spurgeon points out that David could also be setting himself apart from those who blaspheme God, which leads us to our final passage.

Psalm 139:23-24

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 Point out anything in me that offends you,
    and lead me along the path of everlasting life.

Contextually, David is carrying out his assertion that he hates anyone who hates God. And, to prove it, he invites God to search him to see if it isn’t true. Interesting way to read these last verses, isn’t it? 

Poetically, these verses create a beautiful frame with the opening verses where David invites God to search him. This device reminds us of where we began — that when we enter God’s presence, when we sit down to have a heart-to-heart with Him, we’re inviting Him into our dark, inner places. 

Photo by Isaac Quesada on Unsplash

Spiritually, when we go to God, we acknowledge His omnipresence. We seek to access his omniscience, and we invite Him to search us out — why? To show us what needs reproof, repair, and redirection. The Holy Spirit reminds us that in Him, there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1). So, as He convicts, instructs and encourages us, we can engage with Him in the process of transformation, of becoming more like Christ. And we can trust that the path God puts us on will be for our good (Jeremiah 29:11), as well as for the good of others (Philippians 2:1-4) and God’s glory (2 Corinthians 4:15).

Pray with Me

Father God, we’re like David — pretty blown away by how big You are. You are everywhere all the time. You see everything and everyone. You know us, each and every one of us, intimately, personally, fully. And You love us. We invite You to search us, revealing to us those dark corners of our hearts that need Your light. Shine bright in us, Jesus, so that we can bring all our brokenness, all our mistakes, all our thoughts and feelings into Your light — to be cleansed and made pure, to be redeemed and made whole, to be transformed and made righteous.

Lord, we thank You that You are always near — that all we have to do is look to You for love, acceptance, healing, peace, wholeness, and help. Your Word promises that when we seek You, we’ll find You — what a comfort and encouragement that is. Draw us to you. Envelope us in your strong arms that strengthen and protect us, offering us assurance that You are present. As we become more and more like Jesus, we ask that Your light would shine through us, reflecting the love and acceptance that You’ve given us to those around us. 

It’s in Your most holy name we pray, Amen.

A Game and the Moon

There will be days, seasons, and years when we feel like we are sitting in total, utter darkness. In those times, let’s go to God’s Word, like to Psalm 139, to remember that God, in His omniscience and omnipresence, is there for us, ready to come alongside us. He is the great flashlight, and He is seeking us out — not to tag us but to shine light into our dark places with a heart to make us whole. Because we have God, we have the light! It gives life. It offers hope. And, it’s with that flashlight we can run toward those in the dark — with His light. 

Chris Tomlin, Brett Young, and Cassadee Pope have written a song, “Be the Moon,” that illustrates perfectly how this exchange works — God giving us His light then us reflecting it back to others for God. It’s catchy and fun and oh, so true. I’ve added it to our Playing Psalms playlist. I hope you like it!

Ready to be the moon, Shelley Johnson

The header photo is by Ramin Talebi on Unsplash

PS’s — 

  1. If you’d like to read ahead, check out Psalm 23.
  2. Invite friends to come play with us!
  3. Don’t miss a post. Sign up to receive them in your email.
  4. Finally, if you’d like to be further encouraged, I’ve created a “Playing Psalms” playlist on Spotify. If you’ve been listening to the playlist, you’ll notice “Be the Moon” is now tucked in between the Psalm 139 and Psalm 23 songs. So fun!

Playing Psalms: Goodness and Games — Tag

Simultaneously, my friends and I shouted, as if loudness affected the quickness of our words, “Not it!”
“Not it!”
“Not it!”

Well, quickness counted. Because whoever was last to get the words out became the infamous IT, the one who had the hard task of tagging the rest of us who scrambled about the yard, arms flailing, voices taunting. 

Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

The simplest of games in theory, Tag can also be the longest, most exhausting of games. Especially if you’re IT. Literally, IT chases the other players, trying to touch, or tag, them. When someone gets tagged, they become IT. And so it goes. And goes. And goes.

Yet, Tag has endured through the generations. Maybe it’s the thrill of the chase. Perhaps it gives wiggly kids full of unspent energy an excuse to run about. I wonder if it might also be the elicited feeling of belonging.

My husband and I sat at an outdoor table for dinner one night. The restaurant had become a popular hangout during the summer evenings of the pandemic. Just beyond the tables, a padded area for kids drew families in, beckoning play to happen. I watched with some sadness as I noticed the effects of social distancing — kids would look at parents longingly, “Can’t I go ask them to play?” I could feel their need for closeness, for fun with friends, for interaction.

Finally, one little boy, with all the glee and unhindered joy kids should have, playfully ran toward a little girl and tagged her. Then hopped back, hoping she’d take the bait and give chase. She did.

And my heart soared.

Then, it occurred to me — the boy hadn’t needed to say a word. His tag was all it took to get the game going.

Prayer

I wonder how often we come at prayer like a game of tag. We come up to God, maybe from behind with timidity or charging full force toward His face, giving Him a good whack: “Tag, You’re it.”

Then we dart off, waiting. Running. Questioning when He’ll answer that prayer. Tagging Him again and again. And again. Answer. My. Prayer.

But that’s not really prayer. That’s not what God invites us into — a game of tag. No.

Whether corporate or in solitude, prayer is meant to be conversation. Relationship. An authentic act of faith and hope and trust. It can even be a very real dispersal of deep feelings that Walter Brueggemann describes as “a place of disorientation.” 

It should be striking that the one thing Jesus’ disciples asked Him to teach them was how to pray. Not how to make disciples. Or to preach a good sermon. Or save souls. But to pray. Jesus’ response (The Lord’s Prayer) models for us the language and heart behind prayer — worship God in heaven, seek His kingdom, ask for daily needs and forgiveness, and surrender to His will.

Nowhere in Scripture did Jesus model for us this prayer-as-a-game-of-tag way of praying. Instead, He consistently and continuously found quiet places to get alone with God. To pray. To listen. To know His Father’s will. 

Psalm 143 — A Penitential Psalm

Today’s Psalm sets the example for such prayer. King David shows us what it looks and sounds like to come to God with the kind of honesty prayer is meant for. In fact, Psalm 143 stands as one of a few “Penitential Psalms,” a subcategory of Laments, which we’re familiar with by now. Very specifically, the penitential lament is one of seeking God’s forgiveness for sin and failure.

We can, quite literally, use this Psalm as our own prayer, and today we’ll venture through that practice together. As we become proficient pray-ers of Psalms, we will witness within ourselves a subtle shift — a deepening of our love for Jesus, a strengthening of our relationship with God, and a solidifying of our faith because of the Spirit.

Try not to give in to the urge to run, keeping yourself at arms length from God. Instead, draw near. Lean in. Speak David’s words as if they were your own.

Seeking Mercy — Pray these four verses as your own prayer, aloud is best:

1 Lord, hear my prayer,
    listen to my cry for mercy;
in your faithfulness and righteousness
    come to my relief.
2 Do not bring your servant into judgment,
    for no one living is righteous before you.
3 The enemy pursues me,
    he crushes me to the ground;
he makes me dwell in the darkness
    like those long dead.
4 So my spirit grows faint within me;
    my heart within me is dismayed.

Psalm 143:1-4 NIV

Immediately, David asks for mercy. We could pause there. And sit in the reality of our need for God’s mercy. Allow ourselves to feel that need for God’s mercy. 

We move forward, acknowledging God’s faithfulness and righteousness — putting Him on the throne, removing ourselves. Then we ask for the relief our hearts seek.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

David confesses a truth we often fight against: no one is righteous but God. No matter what we do or who we are, we can’t do it all right. We can’t make ourselves righteous. We are incapable of saving ourselves. In fact, we sin. What a relief to finally admit that and give it to the Righteous One. 

That confession exposes us to all the hard things — the enemy, the crushing, the darkness, the dismay. Our honesty with God and ourselves opens us to hurt but also to the coming healing.

Remember — Pray these verses with a heart that looks back at God’s faithfulness:

5 I remember the days of long ago;
    I meditate on all your works
    and consider what your hands have done.
6 I spread out my hands to you;
    I thirst for you like a parched land.
7 Answer me quickly, Lord;
    my spirit fails.
Do not hide your face from me
    or I will be like those who go down to the pit.

Psalm 143:5-7 NIV

Do you feel David’s words becoming your own, coming from a place of humility and honesty? Rest in that. Don’t overthink it. Spread your hands and receive what God has for you.

David demonstrates many times throughout the Psalms this practice of remembering, of rehearsing the times God came through, proved faithful, and answered prayer. David did this not to dwell in the past but to bring to mind the fact that God is faithful. He is worthy of our trust.

When we pause to think about all the times God has shown up, the memories trigger within us hope and faith — if He did it then, He’ll do it again! As our hope and faith rise, our fears subside. Our focus shifts. And instead of panicking about how the situation will work out, we start to thirst for more of God.

When we move into His presence, He fills. Satisfies. Quenches our thirst yet gives us a desire for more of Him. And we can breathe.

Then our pleas for God’s answers come from a deeper place, a gut-revealing, honest place. We recognize our need for God is greater than anything else — a feeling that whispers, if we can’t find God, we might as well die… 

Holy Conversation — Pray these verses with fervency and faith:

8 Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love,
    for I have put my trust in you.
Show me the way I should go,
    for to you I entrust my life.
9 Rescue me from my enemies, Lord,
    for I hide myself in you.
10 Teach me to do your will,
    for you are my God;
may your good Spirit
    lead me on level ground.

Psalm 143:8-10 NIV

David’s prayer rolls off our tongues as if we originated the thoughts. Because they are our thoughts. He gives us words for what seemed wordless.

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Like Jesus with His disciples, David gifts us with expressions that guide us in holy conversation with God, revealing our deepest desires and fears. But also anchoring us in God’s truth.

Personal Portion

At some point during lock-down last spring, I came across Psalm 143:8-10. They immediately become my personal prayer portion. And when I found them in the NASB 1995 version, their poetry blossomed in me and brought me closer to God. I printed them. Prayed them. Made them my phone’s lock screen. Found songs that sang them. In other words, I immersed myself in them.

I’ll share “my” version with you here: 

Let me hear Your lovingkindness in the morning;
For I trust in You;
Teach me the way in which I should walk;
For to You I lift up my soul.
Deliver me, O Lord, from my enemies;
I take refuge in You.
Teach me to do Your will,
For You are my God;
Let Your good Spirit lead me on level ground.

Psalm 143:8-10 NASB-1995

I’ve not found another version of these three verses that follows such a perfect pattern:

Let
Teach
Deliver
Teach
Let

The pattern may mean little to anyone else, but to me it speaks of purposeful prose that leads to intended outcomes. I love how the movement flows and guides. 

Framing the section with the two lets encourages a release of tightly clasped hands. Asking God to “let me hear” or to “let Your good Spirit lead” engages the process of letting go, of trusting God. It reminds us that we don’t have control — so quit holding life as if we do. 

Photo by Jem Sanchez on Pexels.com

And in the middle of the chaos of pandemics and moves and changes, I’ve required much releasing of clenched fists. I am getting better at holding things loosely and doing the work of letting go, for I trust in Him — a great faith-building refrain if there ever was one.

On either side of let is teach. Having given space for God to step into our situations, we can move aside. We can get out of the way so that God can teach us His ways, His will. We can do this with great confidence because we are His and He is ours — For I lift my soul to Him. For He is my God. 

Then smack in the middle of this prayer is the heart of our cry for help: deliverance. And because He is the Deliverer, we can take refuge in Him.

Such truths. They lead us. Give us hope. Point us to Jesus. Anchor us in all that God is. 

Our prayers become our trust walk.

Righteous Reverence — Pray these final verses, bowed low but bold:

11 For your name’s sake, Lord, preserve my life;
    in your righteousness, bring me out of trouble.
12 In your unfailing love, silence my enemies;
    destroy all my foes,
    for I am your servant.

Psalm 143:11-12 NIV

David points us back to God’s righteousness, back to God Himself, as he makes his final requests known. This heartfelt prayer comes from bent knees and bowed head, in full faith of God’s love and ability, with a reminder of David’s place before the Almighty.

If we step back and look at this particular penitential prayer, we might be surprised to absorb its simplicity. But it carries with it all we need to pray effectively — acknowledge God and confess our sin, make our request and release control, ask God to teach us and lead us, then surrender to His will and ways, reminding ourselves just how faithful He is.

Penitential and Personal

Probably all our prayers should carry the penitential. Even Jesus taught us to ask, “forgive us our trespasses.” But, there will be days or seasons when the gravity of our sin and the burdens of our brokenness weigh us down so heavily that our prayers become our path to wholeness in Jesus. Our penitent hearts get personal. Real. Raw. And oh so brave. 

“As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell.”

NT Wright

Receiving the grace offered, we not only find forgiveness and healing but hope and renewed strength to reenter life. 

And, yet, that’s not where it ends. Like that little boy at the restaurant, we’re meant to engage others with the freedom and peace and joy we’ve found in Christ.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

We come alongside those who need a friend, who need help finding their way to the God who heals and forgives. Not walloping them with trite sentiments or platitudes, but with gentle nudges that let them know they’re not alone. Sometimes we don’t even need to speak a word to get the game going.

Ready to repent, Shelley Johnson

The header photo is by Ramin Talebi on Unsplash

PS’s — 

  1. The other Penitential Psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130) can easily be prayed just as 143 because they’re written in first person. Skim them to see which ones speak to where you are now. And pour out your heart to God.
  2. If you’d like to read ahead, check out Psalm 139.
  3. Invite friends to come play with us!
  4. Don’t miss a post. Sign up to receive them in your email.
  5. Finally, if you’d like to be further encouraged, I’ve created a “Playing Psalms” playlist on Spotify. I pray these songs help you enter God’s presence and sow God’s Word deeply into your soul. 

Playing Psalms: Games and Goodness — Red Rover

Try to visualize with me — two lines of young kids, facing opposite each other, each side linked at the arms. The teams stare down at each other, nearly growling with anticipation of the ensuing battle.

The hum of expectancy rises to a fevered pitch as the first side hollers out loud, “Red rover, red rover, send Bobby right over.” Big ‘ol Bobby proudly leaves his ranks to run with all his might to the other side, ready to crash his way through their line. Successful at busting through their linked arms, he chooses one of those “weak links” to join his side.

Unlike Bobby, I did not enjoy “Red Rover.” I was a tiny thing in elementary — not strong or especially athletic. I hated hearing my name called because I knew I’d let my team down, unable to break through the other team’s linked arms. Misery doused all joy and remained with me till the game finally ended.

Red Rover

Though a simple schoolyard game, “Red Rover” can be played with great strategy and skill. Find the weak links. Play to your team’s strengths. Choose your plays wisely.

For the Bobbies of the world, this particular pursuit fulfills their competitive bents and stretches their strategic tendencies. And, if Bobby has the right heart, he learns the basics of leading a team well — how to protect the weak and capitalize on momentum. If he doesn’t, he can become the bully so many dread.

For the Shelleys of the world, it’s way too easy to succumb to the feelings of inadequacy and unfairness. Our thoughts can keep us out of the game, not realizing that we can be part of the strategy. Our assumptions can even take us to the places of resentment, fear, or jealousy. 

All the sudden, I see “Red Rover” as an incredible metaphor for life.

Psalm 73 

Our focus this week, Psalm 73, is considered a Psalm of Lament. Much like Psalm 25 from last week, this Psalm cries out to God, asks Him for help, and responds in praise or trust. But, unlike Psalm 25, which had a back-and-forth rhythm that reflected the inner wrestling of the psalmist, Psalm 73 reads more like a play with a significant moment of climax after which everything shifts.

While Psalm 25 set out to confirm God’s goodness as His help was sought, today’s Psalm seeks an answer about an observation — why the evil prosper. And the righteous suffer.  

Let’s read the entire Psalm, paying attention to the mental grappling of the author’s lament of the injustice he sees and feels. Watch for that climactic moment when his thinking shifts then observe how his attitude follows suit. (A hint, the small conjunctions at the beginning of sentences can be big clues).

1 Surely God is good to Israel,
    to those who are pure in heart.

2 But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
    I had nearly lost my foothold.
3 For I envied the arrogant
    when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

4 They have no struggles;
    their bodies are healthy and strong.
5 They are free from common human burdens;
    they are not plagued by human ills.
6 Therefore pride is their necklace;
    they clothe themselves with violence.
7 From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
    their evil imaginations have no limits.
8 They scoff, and speak with malice;
    with arrogance they threaten oppression.
9 Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
    and their tongues take possession of the earth.
10 Therefore their people turn to them
    and drink up waters in abundance.
11 They say, “How would God know?
    Does the Most High know anything?”

12 This is what the wicked are like—
    always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.

13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
    and have washed my hands in innocence.
14 All day long I have been afflicted,
    and every morning brings new punishments.

15 If I had spoken out like that,
    I would have betrayed your children.
16 When I tried to understand all this,
    it troubled me deeply

17 till I entered the sanctuary of God;
    then I understood their final destiny.
18 Surely you place them on slippery ground;
    you cast them down to ruin.
19 How suddenly are they destroyed,
    completely swept away by terrors!
20 They are like a dream when one awakes;
    when you arise, Lord,
    you will despise them as fantasies.

21 When my heart was grieved
    and my spirit embittered,
22 I was senseless and ignorant;
    I was a brute beast before you.

23 Yet I am always with you;
    you hold me by my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
    and afterward you will take me into glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart
    and my portion forever.

27 Those who are far from you will perish;
    you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
28 But as for me, it is good to be near God.
    I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
    I will tell of all your deeds.

Psalm 73 (NIV)

A Starting Place

Photo by Gia Oris on Unsplash

“Surely, God is good…” Surely. 

Despite all we see, we can follow the psalmist’s lead here and remember that God is always good. Especially to those who are pure of heart. Even when it doesn’t look like that’s the case.

The next verses, 2-3, foreshadow the wisdom to come — 

2 But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
    I had nearly lost my foothold.
3 For I envied the arrogant
    when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

The psalmist hints that he nearly lost his foothold for envying the arrogant. In other words, he came close to giving into assumptions he’d made based on what he saw. These two verses also become an opening frame to a larger text that sets off all the wrong our author notices. All his perceptions lead to some really strong feelings.

The Repeated Assumptions

Our psalmist builds quite the case for the injustice he sees in the world. In verses 4-12, he gives a litany of the “arrogant’s” obvious prosperity and pride. He sees the “wicked” as free from all burdens, full of health, and facing none of the usual problems. From the righteous man’s perspective, this is totally unfair. Not right. His arms are crossed as he watches on, fuming over the wrongness of it all. 

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Have you ever fallen in this trap? Have you ever found yourself in the game of life, looking at the big ‘ol Bobbies and wondering how they got it so good? It’s easy to put ourselves in the place of our author because we’ve felt that injustice.

13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
    and have washed my hands in innocence.
14 All day long I have been afflicted,
    and every morning brings new punishments.

We can quickly make assumptions and feel, as the psalmist does (verses 13-14), that we’re wasting our time following Jesus, living right, and trusting God.

The closing frame of this section builds toward the climax, giving us a glimpse into the author’s struggles yet allowing us access to his coming clarity: 

15 If I had spoken out like that,
   I would have betrayed your children.
16 When I tried to understand all this,
    it troubled me deeply

The case has been made. The evidence laid bare. Our psalmist is deeply troubled… TILL.

The Reversal (aka: The Climax)

17 till I entered the sanctuary of God;
    then I understood their final destiny.

That little word, “till,” takes us on a hairpin turn of understanding and emotion. All those thoughts and struggles and feelings pivot.

Photo by Tom Mussak on Unsplash

Where did the psalmist go with all his troubled thoughts and wrecked wonderings?

He went to God.
He sought God’s presence.
And then he understood. 

Where do you go when you’re struggling with injustices and inequality? 

Social media? News outlets? People who will feed your feelings? Deep inside yourself, withdrawn and hidden?

Or, do you seek out God?

Verse 17 is key for believers of any generation, but perhaps never more so than now because we’re constantly bombarded by images and words filled with ideas, opinions, and suggestive undertones. It’s more than easy to compare, assume, and pick sides. It’s. So. Easy.

The harder, better path is to pause and seek God. Seek to see things from His perspective. Seek to let go of assumptions and grab hold of His constant truths. And when we do, we’ll make the shift, just as our psalmist did.

A Rehearsal of Truths

Asaph, the author credited on this Psalm, went to the place of God’s presence in His day — the sanctuary of God. It was there he got his answers. There he received God’s truths.

Verses 18-20 and 27 state those truths: those who don’t follow God will meet their end. No matter how it looks now, God is just. God will make things right.

Centered on these certainties, we sense the author’s attitude shift. First, confession. 

21 When my heart was grieved
    and my spirit embittered,
22 I was senseless and ignorant;
    I was a brute beast before you.

Do you hear the repentance? The realization of who God is and what He is always about elicits a transformation in the psalmist’s heart — and he confesses. His words drip with humility and genuine appall at his own behaviors. A brute beast, indeed. This self-effacing description makes me think of a more contemporary phrase Hollyn uses in her song, “Alone:” 

“I can be a little punk sometimes.”

Yes, Lord, I sure can. Forgive me.

Asaph then goes on to make a different kind of list — one that demonstrates truth about who he is in God:

23 Yet I am always with you;
    you hold me by my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
    and afterward you will take me into glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart
    and my portion forever.

Whether we’re the Bobbies or the Shelleys in the great game of life, we are all God’s children. When we give our lives and hearts to Jesus, our identities change. The game plan shifts. Our attitudes do an about-face — because we are His. We realize we are playing on the winning team, the fairest team, the most holy team. Even when it doesn’t feel that way in the moment, these are truths to cling to and rehearse.

28 But as for me, it is good to be near God.
    I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
    I will tell of all your deeds.

Like the psalmist, we get to choose what to believe and how to respond. And the very best place to go to figure out what those beliefs and responses might look like is directly into the presence of God.

Through prayer.
Through meditating on Scripture.
Through journaling and active listening for His holy voice.
Through worship.

When we enter His presence, we get much needed perspective. Armed with His truths, peace, and power, full of humility and hope, we can then go into the world ready. Refreshed. Refocused. Released to share Him with others.

Come on Over!

The game “Red Rover” draws a pretty good parallel for our lives. We can enter into this journey with God filled with dread, paralyzed by fear, unable to see our role in the big picture — and quit playing altogether. 

Or, we can stand ready, trusting that when our names are called, we’re being sent by a good, benevolent Father who not only gives us what we need but goes with us. 

So, let’s take a page out of Asaph’s book. Before we get bogged down by what we see in the world around us and entangled by the jealousy and anger that too easily rise to the surface, let’s go to God. Everyday. With sincere hearts, open and ready for the truths He has for us. Truths that anchor us to Him and allow us to go into the world fully armed — not for battle against flesh and blood but for the spiritual wars that require us to be covered by all His armor (see Ephesians 6).  

Photo by panitan punpuang on Unsplash

Hear your name, friend — God is calling you to come on over. Let go of the assumptions that hold you captive. Replace lies with the truth so you can trust God’s goodness and provision. It’s time to get in the game!

Ready to take my place on the field, Shelley Johnson

The header photo is by Ramin Talebi on Unsplash

PS’s — 

  1. If you’d like to read ahead, check out Psalm 143 — another lament. See if you can spot the crying out, asking for help, and affirming of faith in this Psalm.
  2. Invite friends to come play with us!
  3. Don’t miss a post. Sign up to receive them in your email.
  4. Music is a great way to play with the Psalms, so I’ve created a “Playing Psalms” playlist on Spotify. There are four songs based on Psalm 73 in the list. I hope you’ll hear phrases of truth that will anchor you in God’s truth and help you enter His presence.

Playing Psalms: Games and Goodness — Red Light, Green Light

My friend proudly took her place at the front of the gym, standing with her given authority before our class. With hands on hips, she twisted her body around and hollered, “GREEN LIGHT!” Her back to us, we ran toward her with all our might from the back of the gym, hoping to tag her before she turned around. But as quickly as she had turned the first time, she whipped around toward us in full grin, shouting, “RED LIGHT!” And we froze. 

Well, most of us did. There were a few who got greedy and took another step or two. Enjoying the power she held, my friend quickly pointed at those movers and sent them back to the starting line. And so the back-and-forth of our game went until someone finally tagged her and became the new leader.

Photo by Wesley Armstrong on Unsplash

Several years ago, I was at a crossroads, and I thought back to that “Red Light, Green Light” game from elementary school, wishing for someone in that moment to tell me whether I should “go” or “stay.” I desperately desired direction.

After all my wishing in that season, I did, at last, turn to the One with all wisdom, who knows what’s best for me. And, in looking to God, I discovered that I can cry out to Him, and He will respond. While He’s yet to speak audibly to me, He can (and does) nudge, prompt, and lead me in a variety of ways. I actually recognize Him in those moments — when I’m paying attention. 

Laments

The practice of looking to God for direction and help is well-documented in the Psalms. King David, especially, spent hours and lots of ink pouring his heart out to God. And, very often his prayerful poems poured forth as Psalms of Lament. Interesting note — about two-thirds of all Psalms are laments, so it’s a good idea to understand a little about what a lament is.  

NT Wright defines a lament as “an appeal to God based on confidence in His character” (from this site). A lament is not a complaint but a cry for help, anchored in hope. I learned from Jen Wilkin’s study on the Psalms that laments generally have three elements: 1) crying out to God, 2) asking for help, and 3) responding in trust and praise. 

Keeping that in mind, we’ll look at Psalm 25 as a model for prayer in times when we need God’s help. We’ll see a back-and-forth flow as David, our Psalmist, spoke his faith and hope then made his pleas for help. Though I take some liberties doing this, I thought it’d be fun to use the red and green theme of our game to visualize this ebb-and-flow.

Read it through. See if you agree with my color coding — green being David’s statements of faith and hope, red capturing his cries for help. Here we go!

Psalm 25

1 In you, Lord my God,
    I put my trust.

2 I trust in you;
    do not let me be put to shame,
    nor let my enemies triumph over me.

3 No one who hopes in you
    will ever be put to shame,
but shame will come on those
    who are treacherous without cause.

4 Show me your ways, Lord,
    teach me your paths.

5 Guide me in your truth and teach me,
    for you are God my Savior,
    and my hope is in you all day long.

6 Remember, Lord, your great mercy and love,
    for they are from of old.
7 Do not remember the sins of my youth
    and my rebellious ways;
according to your love remember me,

    for you, Lord, are good.
8 Good and upright is the Lord;
   therefore he instructs sinners in his ways.

9 He guides the humble in what is right
    and teaches them his way.

10 All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful
    toward those who keep the demands of his covenant.

11 For the sake of your name, Lord,
    forgive my iniquity, though it is great.
12 Who, then, are those who fear the Lord?
    He will instruct them in the ways they should choose.
13 They will spend their days in prosperity,
    and their descendants will inherit the land.

14 The Lord confides in those who fear him;
    he makes his covenant known to them.

15 My eyes are ever on the Lord,
    for only he will release my feet from the snare.

16 Turn to me and be gracious to me,
    for I am lonely and afflicted.

17 Relieve the troubles of my heart
    and free me from my anguish.

18 Look on my affliction and my distress
    and take away all my sins.

19 See how numerous are my enemies
    and how fiercely they hate me!

20 Guard my life and rescue me;
    do not let me be put to shame,
    for I take refuge in you.

21 May integrity and uprightness protect me,
    because my hope, Lord, is in you.
22 Deliver Israel, O God,
    from all their troubles!

Psalm 25 (NIV)

Do you feel the back-and-forth pull between hope and lament, statements of faith and pleas for help?

This prayer of David’s can be ours. We can model how this “man after God’s own heart” went to God with sincerity, humility, and honesty. Like David,

  • We can pour out our fears and tears, our frustrations with injustices. 
  • We can turn those cries into asks, giving space for God to work. 
  • And, along the way, we can speak words of faith and praise, letting God (and ourselves) know that we trust Him. Because He is good. And faithful. And trustworthy.

A Pouring Forth

It helps to start with putting words to our pain when we find ourselves stuck or lost, hurting or helpless. Pouring out all we feel as honestly as we can gives us a starting place. It helps us identify where we are so we can look to God for direction on where to go next. 

If I’m not processing out loud what I’m feeling with a trusted friend, then I’m journaling with God. And sometimes I do both. Getting it all out there is important, but we don’t want to get stuck there, or our laments can turn into complaints.

Photo by Ximena Ibañez on Unsplash

Red Light

Therefore, it’s important to stop, look, and listen. Be intentional to stop the crying out and look to God, being sure to listen for His response. 

In that season when I stood at a crossroads, wondering which way I should go, I cried out to God with my frustration then turned to Psalm 25. I resonated with verses 4-5a and set out to memorize them because they captured the cry of my heart:

Show me your ways, Lord,
    teach me your paths.
Guide me in your truth and teach me,

These imperative statements became my pleas. Instead of worrying this decision to death as I had been, I made the choice to look to God for decision-making help. Every time I was tempted to worry, with wonder I repeated these verses.

My answer didn’t come in minutes or hours or even days. But while I waited for direction, I was able to stop my spiraling thoughts and palpitating heart by asking God for help in a concrete, succinct, and productive way.

These verse-prayers also built my faith because they gave room for God to speak. I was no longer telling God what to do specifically. Instead, I was asking Him to show me what His ways looked like. 

These verses become a prayer of holding life loosely. As Carrie Underwood sings, it’s giving Jesus the wheel.

Photo by Portuguese Gravity on Unsplash

Green Light

My memory verses didn’t stop at verse 5a. I actually memorized all of verse 5, which concludes with this statement of faith:

 for you are God my Savior,
   and my hope is in you all day long.

And, looking back, I know it was this part of the verse that made the most difference. I asked. But I also trusted. I trusted because I kept reminding myself that God was, is, and always would be my Savior. To hear myself say that my hope is in Him all day long, anchored my faith. 

Willing Participant

Admittedly, saying words doesn’t change us, nor does that act change our circumstances. But. When we speak words of honesty to a God who listens and acts on our behalf, we can know that we’re acting on our faith. We’re trusting this relationship with God to work. We’re releasing the results to a God who is good, loving, and trustworthy. And, that does change us.

But. To pray with faith means we also wait with faith.

Did you notice that David’s first words in this Psalm were about trust? I suspect those were words of faith even as his faith wavered. He spoke… 

In you, Lord my God,
   I put my trust.
I trust in you…

Psalm 25:1-2

…to remind himself that he does, in fact, trust God.

He laments. He asks. He trusts. Then he waits.

Waiting in faith is active. I picture our pleas to God being a lot like planting seeds.

When we plant seeds in a flowerpot, we trust something is happening in the dirt. We can’t see it happening, but we trust life is percolating just beneath the surface. Then one day, our faith is rewarded when a plant appears!

Prayers of faith work similarly. We speak them, burying them in the heart of God, believing that He’s at work. Even when we can’t see results right away, we know answers are coming. We can anticipate God’s response.  

Our time of waiting is not passive. We’re meant to anticipate. Trust. Listen. Watch. 

And, when we hear from God, however that looks, we act. We obey.

Just as in a game of “Red Light, Green Light,” we need to be willing participants, keeping our eyes on the One with all the power. We can choose to trust Him when He says, “Go!” We can be confident in Him when He says, “Stop!”

Photo by Evelyn Mostrom on Unsplash

Help and Answers

God did finally answer my prayers. As I stood at those crossroads, wondering if I should keep moving forward on the path I was on or if I should make a turn, he showed me what to do. 

On one particularly stressful Sunday, I entered worship greatly anxious for an answer. But instead of asking again, I simply surrendered. I worshiped my heart out and held my hands open.

One moment I was singing. The next I was seeing myself on a white water raft. “What is this, Lord?” I silently asked.

His whispered response told me everything I needed to know. “Stay in the boat. But hold on tight. It’s gonna be a rough ride.” Despite the unique, even odd, reply, I knew it was of God. I’d gotten my answer.

Decision made. I stayed the course. I trusted His way. I praised Him for His help. 

I’d love to say that I learned this lesson so well that I never worry anymore or never forget to ask God for help before I get stressed. I’m still a work in progress. 

But, I will say this experience with God changed me. I know without a doubt that God hears. And He answers. In all sorts of ways, He helps, directs, and leads. All of this builds my faith. It anchors me to the One who is worthy of my full, abiding trust. 

Psalm 25 models for us what it’s like to go to God with all our feelings, to ask for help, and to trust Him with the answers. And, as David shows us, it’s not always linear. It’s more of an ebb and flow. The catch is to remember that our lament is, more than anything, a trusting cry for help. A release that leads to response. A hope that leads to the best kind of help because it’s from the best God — the One who is always near, who always hears, who always wants to work all things for our good.

This week’s game reminds us God is our focus and leader. And we can trust His direction!

Ready to trust, Shelley Johnson

The header photo is by Ramin Talebi on Unsplash

PS’s — 

  1. If you’d like to read ahead, check out Psalm 73 — another lament, so see if you can spot the crying out, asking for help, and affirming of faith in this Psalm.
  2. Invite friends to come play with us!
  3. Don’t miss a post. Sign up to receive them in your email.
  4. Music is a great way to play with the Psalms, so I’ve created a “Playing Psalms” playlist on Spotify. There are two songs based on Psalm 25 in the list, both focusing on the phrase, “Show Me Your Ways!”

Fresh

Photo by Jony Ariadi on Unsplash

Bright green and crisp. Loud crunch as each piece breaks into my mouth. Perfect balance of sweet and tart as the fresh apple’s juices flow.

New year, fresh start. Begin again — carry with me all I’ve learned. Look ahead. Hope instead of dread.

Rhythms and routines. Playlists and pauses. Leaving behind what held me back. Looking ahead with fresh perspective.

Blogs and books. Poems and posts. Fresh ideas germinating from seeds of experience and expectations, dreams and desires.

Fresh is full. Flowing. Flowery. Fun. Not stuck or sandwiched or slippery.

Fresh impacts, invading our senses, inviting hope.

Fresh lays aside dreary, rotten, stinky. It refreshes and renews. Reveals and revels.

Holy Spirit, blow fresh on us today, we pray.

Playing Psalms: Games and Goodness — Hide and Seek

Hands over my eyes, I count loudly, “One, two, three….” My heart speeds up as I get closer to twenty, anticipating the fun of finding my hidden friends. “Twenty! Ready or not, here I come!” And, off I run, feeling the summer breeze on my face, smelling the freshly cut grass, grinning wide for all to see.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Memories often hold such moments, capturing the innocence and freedom, abandon and fun of childhood. Game-playing outside on a summer afternoon with friends  — real or imagined — can epitomize such qualities. And, it’s these very conditions I’d love for us to engage as we endeavor to play the Psalms.

As eager as we are to leave behind all the yuck of 2020, let’s not be too hasty or tainted and miss the very vehicle of discovery. To find hope and joy, we must seek. When I played Hide and Seek as a little girl, I had to be intentional to go out and look for my friends — I had to uncover their places so that I could achieve my purposes.

Photo by Edi Libedinsky on Unsplash

It’s no different for us as adults as we look ahead to a new year, hoping for better things. Those better things — like hope and joy, freedom and faith — they won’t find us. We must insert ourselves into the search. And, as believers, our seeking must begin with God.

And, that’s what I hope we can train ourselves to do as we start our new series: Playing Psalms: Games and Goodness. Each week we’ll choose a childhood game to compare to a specific Psalm. As we play with each week’s spiritual poems, we’ll discover what we’ve been searching for all along. We’ll recover some of what we’ve lost and uncover much we didn’t know we needed.

This week we’re playing Hide and Seek — surprise! — as we delve into Psalm 84. Ready or not, here we go!

Hide and Seek

Not all our memories of childhood are filled with joy and good times — not even the games we played always turned out to be fun. Sometimes when I played Hide and Seek, disappointment flooded me when I’d fail over and over to find my friends before they returned to “base.” There might have even been a few frustrated tears when I grew weary of seeking and never finding.

We can feel that same disappointment or frustration when we look for God but can’t find Him. We close our eyes to pray and see nothing. We call out, but the One We Seek seems to be well hidden.

And, sometimes, instead of stomping away from the game in tears, we duck our heads in defeat and just. stop. looking.

After a year like we’ve had, many of us feel that way now — like we have been seeking and imploring to no effect. We’ve crossed our arms in a good old fashioned pout and threatened to quit the game.

It may help to know that we’re not the first to feel this way — like life is hard and God is not near. In fact, the Psalms are full of these very laments. Here’s one of the more famous verses:

“How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”

Psalm 13:1

David, the King of Israel, wrote those words with humility and honesty, asking the question of his heart. Psalms as this one become a model for us, an invitation for us to do the same.

The Psalms can also show us how to seek God with intention, speaking our worries, as well as, our hopes. And, that’s where today’s Psalm comes in.

We Seek

How lovely is your dwelling place,
   Lord Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints,
    for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out
    for the living God.

Psalm 84:1-2 NIV

The authors of this Psalm, identified as the Sons of Korah, worked in the Tabernacle of God in the years of Moses’ leadership and for generations beyond. As we read through these first two verses of Psalm 84, we notice their passion for “the courts of the Lord” and for “the living God.”

If we pause here long enough to ask why they felt this way, we might consider they had a firsthand view of the Tabernacle of God — the moveable tent of worship for the Israelites as they wandered the desert and moved into the promised land. 

And, if we ask another question — what was the purpose of the Tabernacle? — we’ll recognize it held the presence of God. These Sons of Korah yearned to be in courts of the Lord because that is where GOD DWELLED. 

When we cry out to God, we might think we’re just looking for a quick answer to prayer, but what our souls long for more than anything is to be in God’s presence. These opening verses of Psalm 84 reveal for us the very thing we seek — God Himself.

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Even the Sparrow

Even the sparrow has found a home,
    and the swallow a nest for herself,
    where she may have her young—
a place near your altar,
    Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
    they are ever praising you.

Psalm 84:3-4 NIV

The theme of seeking God continues in verses 3-4. Drawing a comparison to some of the tiniest of God’s creatures, the Psalmist recognizes that sparrows and swallows find their homes near God. Such words of discovery are meant to encourage us in our searching.

The hymn, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” takes the poetry of Psalm 84 and carries the ideas out further, reminding us that even when we fear, God is near — even when our hope dies, we can draw closer to Him and find what we need. Just like the sparrow.

I love how the New Living Translation (NLT) describes “blessed” in verse 4:

What joy for those who can live in your house,
    always singing your praises.

Psalm 84:4 NLT

WHAT JOY comes to those who find God! Funny little side note — my word for 2021 is joy, so the phrase, “what joy,” leapt at me as I read it in the NLT. I deeply desire to find joy this year — the God-centered, Holy Spirit sustained kind of joy. I see something so special here: to seek God, to pursue His presence, that is where true joy is found. 

Pilgrimage

Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
    whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
    they make it a place of springs;
    the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
They go from strength to strength,
    till each appears before God in Zion.

Psalm 84:5-7 NIV

In verse 4, the Psalmist realizes and reveals that when we enter God’s place of presence, blessings abound. He continues that theme in this next stanza — he sees blessings flow as hearts seek God’s strength and being. 

The language of pilgrimage can be lost on us if we don’t allow ourselves to pause and ponder. Having had the blessing of going to the Holy Land twice in the last few years, I have an incredible visual of believers from all over the world ascending the holy hill that is Jerusalem. While my experiences are set in the twenty-first century, they do help connect to what pilgrimages must have been like for Jews centuries ago. 

Photo by Shelley Johnson, Western Wall in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem

They intentionally left everything to go to Jerusalem — to go to the Temple, the set place of God’s presence. No longer a moving structure as the tabernacle had been, the Temple held permanence, as well as, Presence. They sought God.

As Christians, we become the temple of God because Jesus sent His Spirit to live in us. So, while we don’t have to go to a set location to find God, we do have to remember to seek His presence regularly. Let’s set our hearts on pilgrimage!

Photo by Shelley Johnson, a view of the Temple Mount near the Dung Gate

And, like those pilgrims of old, we will pass through valleys that are difficult. One translation of “Baka” is “weeping.” Have you ever passed through a valley of weeping? Those low places of life feel impassable but are possible with God. The poetry of these verses helps us to cling to the hope that our low, dry valleys will once again be filled by springs and covered with refreshing, life-giving pools — offering us strength enough to get to God, to that place where He is.

Better Is One Day

Hear my prayer, Lord God Almighty;
    listen to me, God of Jacob.
Look on our shield, O God;
    look with favor on your anointed one.

Better is one day in your courts
    than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
    than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
    the Lord bestows favor and honor;
no good thing does he withhold
    from those whose walk is blameless.

Psalm 84:8-11 NIV

Verses 8-9 finally state the heart of this poetic prayer: for God to hear, to look on with favor, and to listen! Such words echo our own hearts as we close our eyes and implore God to heed and help.

Psalmists get honest, but rarely do they stay in the place of hopelessness — remember, they know from where their help comes. The next verses, 10-11, remind us that the only way forward is being with God. 

A more contemporary worship song, “Better Is One Day,” captures the essence of these praises. There is absolutely nowhere else we can desire to be that would be better for our hearts than in God’s courts — a direct reference to the place and presence of God. 

Hear verse 11 in the NLT:

For the Lord God is our sun and our shield.
    He gives us grace and glory.
The Lord will withhold no good thing
    from those who do what is right.

Psalm 84:11 NLT

For those who love words, the poetic flow of “sun” and “shield” and “gives us grace and glory” offers much beauty and hope. That final promise, “The Lord will withhold no good thing from those who do what is right,” sustains weary hearts — hearts that need good things like God’s joy!

What Joy

Psalm 84 punches out with great promise and power:

Lord Almighty,
    blessed is the one who trusts in you.

Psalm 84:12 NIV

Verse 12 picks up the “blessed” language for the third and final time in this Psalm, offering what is meant to be a vote of confidence for us. When we trust God, blessing follows. And, if we look one more time at the NLT, we’re reminded that one such blessing is, wait for it — JOY!

O Lord of Heaven’s Armies,
   what joy for those who trust in you.

Psalm 84:12 NLT

Psalm 84, like so many Psalms of Praise, ebbs and flows out of a heart-wrenching seeking of God, then moves into whole-hearted worship of the One who is always present, always faithful. Its phrases mimic our own minds that wrestle with tough times and escalating emotions, easily drawn into hopelessness and despair one minute, then rushing into praises and promises of faith the next. 

God’s Word stands strong because what it says remains true. When we take time to seek God on the pages of Scripture, we discover One who never hides from us. He is always near. But we must go out and seek Him.

One last promise before we leave this game. Let’s remember the goodness — 

Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Matthew 7:7-8 NLT

This is God’s promise. We can count on the Promise Keeper, so let’s quit counting with our eyes covered and start seeking the One who can make all the difference in our lives.

Ready to seek, Shelley Johnson

The header photo is by Ramin Talebi on Unsplash

PS’s — 

  1. If you’d like to read ahead, check out Psalm 25.
  2. Invite friends to come play with us!
  3. Don’t miss a post. Sign up to receive them in your email.
  4. Finally, if you’d like to be further encouraged, I’ve created a “Playing Psalms” playlist on Spotify. Both songs I mentioned today are on the list, as well as others. Enjoy! 

Playing Psalms: Games and Goodness — An Invitation

I don’t think there’s ever been another New Year so highly anticipated by the masses of our lifetime as 2021. When we consider all the challenges of the past year, we are more than eager for a new beginning. It’s after a year like 2020, we wonder — from where does our hope come? Psalm 121:1 answers that very question with a deep, abiding truth: “My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.” 

If we are to take this Psalm at its word, we must trust that for 2021 to be better — more full of hope, more full of joy — we will have to be intentional about looking to God. We’ll need to —

  • be honest with ourselves and God.
  • seek Him first and most. 
  • lean on each other for encouragement and accountability. 

And, that’s exactly why I am excited to extend this invitation to you!

Photo by Kate Macate on Unsplash

YOU ARE INVITED! 

Come, frolic and play with me as we seek God in His Word together. These first few weeks of 2021 can hold the key to freedom and fresh starts if we’ll set our focus on Jesus, allowing Him to guide us into all He has for us.

With your invitation in hand, read on to find out more about Playing Psalms: Games and Goodness.

On the chance that we might believe our woes are unique to our generation, we can humbly open the pages of Scripture to see that people have been plagued with poverty, pestilences, provocations, and even pandemics since, well, forever.

This truth becomes one of the greatest gifts of the Bible. We can read its words for comfort and assurance that we’re not the first to face such hard times and that we have a God who goes through it all with us, equipping and encouraging us along the way.

God’s Word also helps us remember and realize that even people like David, the great King of Israel, had much to mourn and grieve and lament. Like us, he questioned God and doubted his own faith. He wondered why it looked as though God’s enemies were prospering when God’s people were not. He demonstrated for us what it looks like to come to God with honesty and reverence, with all hurts and hopes, requests and questions. 

And so it is — how the Book of Psalms came to be filled with such writings, mostly penned by this poet-king, David. It is a book worthy of our attention and application, certainly for theological understanding but also for collective and personal perspective.

Photo by Jessica Delp on Unsplash

If you’re like me, I’ve had a distant relationship with the Psalms for most of my life, loving the few verses I know well from its 150 chapters, yet not sure what to do with the rest. Then, I spent the fall of 2020 reading every word of this prolific book of poetry as part of a study with Jen Wilkin at The Village Church (virtually, of course). 

After months of pouring over these lines of poetry that once felt foreign, I now feel the roots of wisdom growing deep in my heart, blossoming to life within me. It’s why I come to my blog to share my learnings with you — in the hope that you, too, might find a seed of truth to carry with you into your day, into your life.

So that we aren’t tempted to dread what we might assume to be a boring book of archaic analogies, I’ve added an element of play. In our recent Playing Psalms: An Advent Series, our time in the Royal Psalms took our imaginations into an auditorium where we became the audience, challenged and moved by a four-act play about Christ, our Messiah and King.

Similarly, in this new series, we’ll continue to play with the Psalms. Only this time we’re headed outdoors — no masks required. In fact, it would be most effective if our imaginings would allow us to place ourselves in our childhood play spaces.

What was your play space? A front yard? A nearby empty lot? A school’s recess area? A neighbor’s wide open farm? An alley behind your house? Or a tree-lined creekbed of your neighborhood? 

Get a clear view of what that place was for you. Imagine the sun shining, the birds singing. Picture yourself running with abandon, no cares in the world — ready to play.

This is the setting for our following frivolity — and your invitation to jump into the high jinks of this journey. And, like every fun-loving kid, be sure to grab a few friends to come play with us. 

We’ll keep the rhythm of getting together every week with a new post going up every Sunday morning — though you’re free to click-in any time.

What we’ll discover as we play our way through six Psalms is that, like the games of our childhood, Psalms hold memories, mystery, and meaning that will shape us, even change us, so that we look and act more like our forever friend, Jesus.

Ready to start the New Year well, Shelley Johnson

PS — If you’d like to prepare for next week, read Psalm 25.

Header photo by Ramin Talebi on Unsplash

Playing Psalms — An Advent Series, The Epilogue

The “Hallelujah Chorus” still thrumming in our ears and hearts, we collectively wonder if that’s it. It always seems to happen — we wait and watch for Christ’s coming each year, then all at once Christmas is over. That same feeling of loss settles over us now. We want more. 

That’s when we realize the curtain is still open, the spotlights still shining. Never taking our eyes off the stage, we reach behind us, fumbling blindly for our seats. And sit. Full of hope.

Surely, there’s more.

Playing Psalms — The Epilogue

That’s when we hear it. The crackling of the sound system coming to life. We lean forward to better hear what our narrator has to say.

O sing to the Lord a new song,
    for he has done marvelous things.
His right hand and his holy arm
    have gotten him victory.
The Lord has made known his victory;
    he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
    to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
    the victory of our God.

Psalm 98:1-3 (NRSV)

Yes, that’s right! Christmas is a celebration of all the marvelous things God has done — His victories and vindications, His ever-steady, never-changing love and faithfulness. And, those are things we can celebrate — all. year. long. Yes!

The narrator continues,

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
    break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
    with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
    make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.

Psalm 98:4-6 (NRSV)

Oh, the JOY! To realize all that embodies Christ our King — what He has done and all that He is doing — it evokes the only emotion imaginable: JOY.

The final stanza flows forth from our faithful narrator-friend — a voice we know so well by now:

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
    the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
    let the hills sing together for joy
at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming
    to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
    and the peoples with equity.

Psalm 98:7-9 (NRSV)

To think of all that will happen when our King comes again — His presence. Here on earth. To rule and reign. To make all things right. No one and no thing in all creation will be able to remain silent on that day. Such celebration!

We should join the seas, the floods, the hills. Let us roar our joy, clap our hands, and lift our voices together!

[enter choir — center stage]

Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heav’n and nature sing.

Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns;
Let all their songs employ,
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sin and sorrow grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness,
And wonders of his love,
And wonders of his love,
And wonders, wonders of his love.

We sing! We clap! We shout and dance and whoop our joy! This is true worship and adoration. This is the joy of the Lord!

We lose track of time. But eventually, the spotlights dim. The curtains close.

And the rejoicing settles to a more subdued simmer. We turn to the people around us, sharing smiles and squeezing hugs. We gather our bags and coats, our playbills and hats to head out, no longer sad that the production is over. We remember that Christ goes with us — out these doors and into the world, every day, all the time — now and forever. His is a gift that gives of itself every time we seek Him. His was a life that bought our own at the highest price. His is a kingdom that offers shelter and hope, and home. His is a promise kept for all who believe. His is a power that rules all nations. Because He is the King of Kings!

So, as we step back into reality, carrying with us all that we have witnessed and welcomed, we remember that deep knowing of who Jesus is — of what Christmas is. And even though Christmas Day is behind us this year, we take it with us into the coming one. With hope. With joy. And with great expectancy.

Joy to the world!

Still in the Christmas spirit, Shelley Johnson

PS — If you enjoyed Playing Psalms: An Advent Series join in again in January for part two — Playing Psalms: Games and Goodness. Rather than imagining ourselves the audience of a Christmas production, we’re headed outside. To get into games. To ponder the poetry of the Psalms through the lens of…play.

If you haven’t already, subscribe to my blog so that you won’t miss a post! And, invite someone else to take part. Here’s to having some fun while submersing ourselves in Scripture!

Header photo by Pro Church Media on Unsplash

Playing Psalms — An Advent Series, Act 4

As the curtains rise, so do our hopes! It’s time for Act Four of Playing Psalms. Our hearts, in equal measure, eagerly anticipate what comes next and despair of this production’s conclusion.

Because we’ve already peeked at our playbill, we know that this Act will include parts of Royal Psalm 89.

Act Four, Scene One

The stage lights brighten, revealing three scenes: a golden box, a bottle of oil, and a table with a loaf of bread and cup of wine. Knowing by now that these simple displays will have a role in this Act, we automatically try to puzzle out what they represent. 

But, alas, our narrator — as usual — interrupts our introspections with the opening lines of our Psalm:

I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever;
    with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known
    through all generations.
I will declare that your love stands firm forever,
    that you have established your faithfulness in heaven itself.
You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
    I have sworn to David my servant,
‘I will establish your line forever
    and make your throne firm through all generations.’”

Psalm 89:1-4

The voice ceases, and the spotlight encircles the golden box, just as verse three pops up on the screen above.

I have made a COVENANT with my chosen one.

Covenant? The promise-like-oath we make with others? 

Almost as if he could read our thoughts, the narrator quotes Exodus 24:7-8:

Then [Moses] took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.” Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

Oh, yes. We remember now. Moses. The Ten Commandments. The covenant God made with His people — that He would be their God, and they would be His people.

Understanding lights our eyes — that golden box is meant to be the Ark of the Covenant, which holds the tablets of the covenant (see Hebrews 9:4). 

Photo by Igor Rodrigues on Unsplash

The narrator’s voice offers further enlightenment as he repeats verse four:

I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through the generations.

Psalm 89:4

This verbal vow to David was no simple promise made lightly in the moment. This promise held power. It hinted eternity. This promise was a covenant. And God made it a forever affirmation.

Act Four, Scene Two

The narrator picks up in the nineteenth verse of this Royal Psalm, whose subject seems to be King David. The spotlight sweeps to the bottle of oil, and the psalmist’s soliloquy continues:

Once you spoke in a vision,
    to your faithful people you said:
“I have bestowed strength on a warrior;
    I have raised up a young man from among the people.
I have found David my servant;
    with my sacred oil I have anointed him.
My hand will sustain him;
    surely my arm will strengthen him.
The enemy will not get the better of him;
    the wicked will not oppress him.
I will crush his foes before him
    and strike down his adversaries.
My faithful love will be with him,
    and through my name his horn will be exalted.
I will set his hand over the sea,
    his right hand over the rivers.
He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father,
    my God, the Rock my Savior.’
And I will appoint him to be my firstborn,
    the most exalted of the kings of the earth.
I will maintain my love to him forever,
    and my covenant with him will never fail.
I will establish his line forever,
    his throne as long as the heavens endure.

Psalm 89:19-29

The beauty of this remembering resonates within us. We can picture God’s choosing of the small shepherd boy and the prophet Samuel pouring the anointing oil over David’s head — a sure sign of Sovereign selection (see 1 Samuel 16:1-13). 

Photo by Roberta Sorge on Unsplash

As the promises roll on, we sense a subtle shift. We can totally see King David being strengthened by God, his enemies never getting the better of him because of God’s intervention (verses 21 & 22). But, perhaps, the imagery of the king’s hand being set over the sea points us to Messiah the King?

Yes, it must. Because then comes the language of Lordship and longevity — “the most exalted,” “love to him forever,” “establish his line forever.”

But, what of being appointed “firstborn?” 

Right on cue, our narrator speaks Paul’s words from his letter to the Colossians. We close our eyes, urging our minds toward understanding:

[Christ] is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Colossians 1:17-20

Further clarification rings out as words from Revelation are read:

…Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth…who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father — to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.

Revelation 1:5-7

[enter choir, stage right]

Act Four, Scene Three

Our eyes still closed, we wonder if what we hear is real. But, we stay there, unmoving and unwilling to break the spell, allowing the notes to wash over us. As the music crescendos, our voices join in. Softly at first, then in fully abandoned adoration of the King of Kings!

Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah

For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah
(repeat 4 times)

Hallelujah

The Kingdom of this world
Is become
The Kingdom of our Lord
And of His Christ
And of His Christ

And He shall reign forever and ever
(repeat 3 times)

King of Kings (Forever and ever hallelujah hallelujah)
And Lord of Lords (Forever and ever hallelujah hallelujah)
(repeat 3 times)

And he shall reign forever and ever (And he shall reign)
And he shall reign forever and ever (And he shall reign)

King of Kings forever and ever
And Lord of Lords hallelujah hallelujah
And he shall reign forever, forever and ever

King of Kings and Lord of Lords
King of Kings and Lord of Lords
And he shall reign forever and ever (And he shall reign forever and ever)

Forever and ever, forever and ever (King of Kings and Lord of Lords)

Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah
Hallelujah

Goosebumps aplenty, our arms remain lifted in worship as we open our weepy eyes. We declare this King we’ve come to know and love as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. 

And, from our depths of being, we mean it. 

[exit choir]

Act Four, Scene Four 

The notes and lyrics reverberating in our chests, we stay standing and stare as the spotlight slides to the table, casting a holy glow over the bread and wine.

Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash

In the silence, we take our seats and await the next stanza of this psalm.

Our narrator, never one to disappoint, takes on the voice of God as he speaks with authority over us:

“If his sons forsake my law
    and do not follow my statutes,
if they violate my decrees
    and fail to keep my commands,
I will punish their sin with the rod,
    their iniquity with flogging;
but I will not take my love from him,
    nor will I ever betray my faithfulness.
I will not violate my covenant
    or alter what my lips have uttered.
Once for all, I have sworn by my holiness—
    and I will not lie to David—
that his line will continue forever
    and his throne endure before me like the sun;
it will be established forever like the moon,
    the faithful witness in the sky.”

Psalm 89:30-37

Oh, this list of all the things that could go wrong, with promises of punishment looming, we start to feel deflated, maybe a little defeated. Is there any way God’s covenant can last forever when we people miss the mark so consistently?

Then the little word — but — and everything shifts.

God’s promises, they are forever. Even when we fail to follow through, even when consequences crater our worlds, God is faithful. He will never go back on his forever covenant. His word remains true.

On the chance that we still haven’t caught the connection or put our full faith into forever, our narrator recites to us the promise God made to Mary, Jesus’ mother:

“You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

Luke 1:31-33

There it is. At the start of the Christmas story — before the Savior is even conceived — the promise that His kingdom will never end. A promise fulfilled. A covenant kept.

This Savior, He ushers in a new covenant — one that He brought about by the shedding of His own blood, the giving of His very body. One that covers all sin. For all time. Here is a King who not only keeps His covenant but becomes the fulfillment of it.

The curtain remains open. Three spotlights shine on the signs of covenant, and we contemplate all we’ve witnessed and felt. 

Sitting there, all senses swirling, we settle into a deep knowing.

God is good. He loves us. He is faithful. So faithful that He keeps His covenants even when we do not. 

Jesus is proof of that — the promised Messiah sent to save the world, whose very being embodied promises made hundreds of years before to a king whose heart belonged to God.

This King of Kings has come! And He’ll reign — forever and ever.

Hallelujah!

Still singing that famous chorus, Shelley Johnson

PS — Read ahead for our final installment, The Epilogue: Psalm 98.

Header photo by Pro Church Media on Unsplash