The LORD is my Shepherd…

My sleep schedule has been a little off lately. I’ve struggled to stay awake at 3pm and lain wide awake at 3am. Around midnight last night, as I waited (and waited) to fall asleep, I enjoyed a good long talk with God. Somewhere in there, I took out my phone and used voice-to-text to rewrite Psalm 23 one line at a time. In the daylight, I’ve enjoyed my midnight brain’s insights and priorities. Instead of continuing the shepherd imagery, I named simple ways that God cares for and blesses me.

It’s not my intention to belittle this gorgeous and beloved song of praise. This was simply an exercise in thinking through a familiar passage in an unfamiliar way, personalizing a Scriptural prayer while giving a formal structure to my own prayers of thanks. (Additionally, I’ve been trying to step away from using male pronouns for God in my personal prayers, as God is neither male nor female, so I avoided them here.)

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not starve for anything.
God encourages me to lie down and take a nap,
God reminds me to drink water,
God restores my soul.
God guides me toward righteousness paths
because that’s God’s character.
Yea, though I walk
through the darkest news cycles,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
rom coms and my roommate’s dog,
they comfort me.

You prepare chicken casserole for me
in the presence of the racist Twitter followers I had to block.
You bless me with cat videos;
my laughter overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will find me
all the days of my life,
and I will call the house of the LORD “home”
forever.

What would your version of Psalm 23 look like? What comforts you? What does God prepare for you? Who are your enemies and when are you most afraid? I’d love to hear your variations!

The Mac and Cheese of the Bible

The psalms are good. A bit simplistic at times. A bit vengeful at times. The world does not exist exactly the way the psalms present it. But it’s full of genuine emotions, familiar phrases, provoking images, and a bit of cheese. It’s comfort food. The psalms work as the main course or as a side. They’re nutritious, especially when paired with good theology and spiced with a sermon series or study. But they aren’t the most nutritious food. And they’re not something you should eat every day, or that you’d really want to eat daily, no matter what your six-year-old self might have professed.

I recently finished reading all 150 psalms, one per day, in order, for 150 days. (Okay, I might not have read every single day, but I stayed consistent and didn’t skip ahead. And I admit to breaking up Psalm 119 over several days. So let’s say it took me 170 days.) It was wonderful. It’d been so long since I’d delved into that book. At times I used resources to aid my reading. At times I paired my daily psalm with other spiritual disciplines. At times, I just read and asked questions of God. For two months or so, I wrote down a single verse every day which confused me and I prayed and meditated on it for the rest of the day.

The book of Psalms is great for establishing discipline. Some parts are hard to understand, but the predominant emotions tend to be pretty obvious and relatable. Some verses are familiar to churchgoers because of songs, hymns, and sheer saturation in church culture. Few psalms are long. Some are downright diminutive.

In high school and my first year or so of college, I read a chapter in Proverbs and a chapter in Psalms every day. And I learned a lot from them. But I kept to this routine for something like five years. I did little reading in other areas of the Bible unless it was part of a formal study or class I had joined. When I felt I needed a challenge, I read more psalms each day. I read the first chapter of Proverbs on the first day of the month, the second chapter on the second, and so on until the last day of the month. If it was the 31st, I would be reading the last chapter of the book. If it was the 28th or 30th, I read all the remaining chapters at once.

I felt like I was ingesting regular, good nutrition, but my leaves were browning in other areas. Not every part of me was thriving. Eventually I learned that even staples can grow stale. Anything can if you eat it every day. Worse still, I had grown so familiar with the verses that I no longer knew how to let them reach me. I felt bored and boring. I haven’t been back to either book in a disciplined way since then.

In the fall, feeling spiritually drained but needing food so I could continue to minister to others, I went back to my old comfort book of the Psalms. I fell in and out of love several times, but I maintained the discipline of daily reading and was back in love with the book as I worked through the final chapters. And once I was done, I felt sad. Adrift. A lost. Where should I go next? I reread a couple of favorite psalms as the month of May approached. On May 1, I read Proverbs 1.

Proverbs, I’ve decided, is like a robust Lucky Charms—sort of like if Honey Nut Cheerios came with marshmallows. The cereal is good. It’s nourishing. But the marshmallows are why you eat it. Sometimes you get a piece of cereal that you know isn’t a marshmallow, but it’s so covered in sugary goodness that you can almost believe it’s one of the pre-shaped gems. You see new value in it. And yet, the more Lucky Charms you eat, the less appealing the cereal tastes. After a while, even when you do get a spoonful with a marshmallow, you’re disappointed by how stale it’s grown. Especially after you’ve had Job and Ecclesiastes, the book’s more complex cousins, it’s hard to feel satisfied with Proverbs.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been praying about what I’ll read next. I’ve kept writing down a verse a day, mostly to help me stay invested and focused as I read.

I’m chosing Isaiah. It’s a long book, which doesn’t particularly appeal to me in this year of transitions, but it’s also one I don’t ever remember reading all the way through. And maybe those 66 chapters will be good for me, will tug me through these busy next few months and provide consistency when my circumstances do not.

I can’t know for sure, of course, what food matches Isaiah. However, when think of the book and its passages that I’m familiar with, I think of a mousse or a pudding. Something seamless that flows and fills. Maybe a huge bowl of yogurt threaded through with bites of fruit. Something half-secret and surprisingly nourishing.

In 66-70 days, I hope I’ll be as in love with the book as I was with Psalms at the end of April.

[If you’re interested in some bacon for your mac and cheese, I highly recommend Sessions with Psalms. Disclaimer: I work for the company that published this study, and I got to work on it during the editorial process. It’s still the best study of Psalms that I’ve ever read.]

Sacred Imagination

A few months ago I finally listened to several coworkers who know me well and tried the podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text”. Although I have since stopped for a variety of reasons, my favorite part of the podcast was the sacred practice portion.
 
The hosts would, for several podcasts in a row, engage in a sacred practice for a major world religion. Many of the first season’s episodes use Lectio Divina, a Christian practice I was intellectually familiar with before the podcast, but had never engaged in. Another Christian practice they use is Sacred Imagination, in which a person imagines what it would be like to be in a biblical scene with the goal of better knowing and loving God. St. Ignatius wrote the first instructions for this practice after imagining himself in the manger scene at Christ’s birth and becoming deeply moved by this experience.

I wasn’t familiar with this practice, and looked forward to its use in the podcast because I enjoyed employing my imagination to try to experience the sights, sounds, smells, and other senses as I’m placing myself in the position of a character. And, I learned a lot from the podcast’s hosts using this method, then talking through what they imagined and how it shaped their reading and understanding of the chosen passage of Harry Potter.

Last week, I took out an old Bible to read Psalm 118, the psalm being studied in the Chapter-A-Day project undertaken by my church. This Bible is an NIV Women of Faith Study Bible, meaning it includes profiles of women in the Bible and features short commentary excerpts on every page based on a passage or verse on that page. It’s also an easily understood translation and was given to me by my uncle upon my graduation from high school. It’s the only Bible I really used during college and is full of my underlining, notes, questions, and occasionally a date if a passage particularly resonated with my life or feelings that day.
 
Now I use an ESV Bible that I don’t write in, so even though I keep my beloved college Bible close, it’s not the one I usually read from. But I was curious what I might have written in college about the middle chapter in the Bible, so I fished it out of the stack of books on my bedside table.
 
I read the psalm through once, noting how my past self had divided the psalm into chunks of 3-5 verses (often with the help of the typesetter, who left a little space between stanzas).
 
When I got to the end, I found a note in pen that said “Sung at the Last Supper” and, at the very top of that page, “Remember the power in these pages.”

I knew my past self might be wrong (it’s impossible to know exactly which psalm Christ sang that night, though Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26 both record the singing, and Jewish tradition tells us that Psalms 113-118 were sung during the Passover week), but I decided to assume my college self was right.

Rereading the passage again one stanza at a time, I used the Sacred Imagination practice. I imagined myself in the upper room of the Last Supper. The Passover meal is eaten, the plates and scraps still on the table. Judas has left to betray Christ. The eleven apostles are pleasantly full and sleepy but excited, anticipating that Jesus will soon overthrow the Romans and rule as the reinstated king in David’s line. For each stanza, I imagined myself as Christ, keeping in mind what Jesus knew was coming, how he must have felt about the disciples around him. Next, I imagined myself as the disciples, recalling their heritage and hopes. I let the lessons I uncovered sit with me, then I read the next stanza.

I’ve picked two stanzas from the psalm to do this with so you can get an idea of what I mean and why the experience was so important to me. If you want to participate in sacred imagination along with me, read the passage several times, out loud of possible, and try to imagine yourself as one of the disciples around the table. What are you seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling as you sit in this room? What do you know? What do you think is about to happen? What do you want? What do these verses remind you of?

When hard pressed, I cried to the LORD; he brought me into a spacious place.
The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?
The LORD is with me; he is my helper. I look in triumph on my enemies.
(vv. 5-7)

Let’s consider Christ’s perspective first.

I thought of Christ being tempted in the desert and cared for by angels sent by God at the end of the 40 days, a “spacious place” after being “hard pressed.” I thought of the torture and crucifixion to come. Though “mere mortals” can kill Jesus, he has power over the grave and will be resurrected by God. This is all part of God’s plans to redeem mankind, as well. The mortals may kill him, but it’s all part of God’s plan. And the LORD will be with Christ. The Spirit will help him. He will, Easter morning, triumph over God’s enemies. Right now, he’s full. He’s been laughing with his friends and leading them in a ritual dinner to remember events that only he still has personal knowledge of. Of those alive on earth, only he was there when the angel of death passed over the Hebrews’ homes in Egypt. Only he is aware of every single household that participated in this feast from that evening to this one.

Now let’s consider what this stanza might mean to the disciples.

They are the chosen handful of disciples. They have learned to preach and cast out demons and heal and do other miracles at Christ’s instructions and by God’s power. They have been saved from storms; Peter’s been saved from drowning. They’ve helped baptize and feed and restore. All because of Jesus. Jesus is God incarnate, and he is with them. In the flesh. He picked them to be here with him. They have nothing to be afraid of! What can “mere mortals” do to them? They are going to be part of the new regime. They went from fishing and tax collecting and farming and normal, boring lives to leaders in God’s service and soon they will be rulers. Everyone who was ever mean to them will be “pea green with envy” (as said by Scarlett O’Hara).

The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.
The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad.
(vv. 22-24)

Christ knows this is referring to himself. The disciples around him don’t know it yet. They don’t realize, even if they should. He’ll be dead and resurrected before they realize all the ways that he is the cornerstone. All these plates full of broken bread must remind him of the breaking his body will soon endure. The lamb they ate is totally gone, but the smell lingers. It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, he may think, looking around at these eleven men he loves so thoroughly. God will redeem you all, this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad.

The disciples are singing of the promised Messiah, just as their parents did and their grandparents—all their ancestors—but they are the only ones that have been with the Messiah. Maybe they look at Jesus, tears in his eyes, looking around at them. Maybe they are wondering if there’s any wine left in their neighbor’s cup. (Minds can wander in worship, even if the Messiah is with them.) God has done a lot of marvelous things, and they must feel proud that they’ll get to be there for all the marvelous things to comes. Jesus has done amazing things today, even. They can be glad about that. And maybe next year they’ll sing this hymn in the palace.

What stood out to you? What did you imagine differently from me? I hope sacred imagination can be a meaningful practice for you in the future.

A Question of Blessings

Sometimes strangers and I have weird conversations. Sometimes those conversations are deep and vulnerable and revealing and the experience is a gift. I had one such conversation last week with a man in a black suit coat, khakis, and glasses. I was crocheting behind the half-table we’d set up as check, out of the twelve tables of books and studies my co-worker and I were womanning at a Christian conference in Virginia. He walked directly to me from across the entryway.

“Hello,” I greeted him at the sweet spot of our closing distance. “How can I help you?” Such purposeful direction meant he was looking for something specific, probably either a book or a bathroom.

“Hi,” he said. “Do you have anything on praying the Psalms?”

We had over 1,000 books on the tables around us, well over 100 separate titles. We have hundreds more titles in our stock online, but not one book exactly matched what he was asking for. The book that came closest wasn’t one of the ones we’d brought to Virginia.

“No. I’m sorry,” I said. “We don’t. Though, I wish we did.”

He shared that he’d been struggling to pray lately and had begun praying psalms, but was looking for a book to give him more direction. He had still experienced positive change in his prayer life, though, so he also wanted a study or guided devotional book that he could give to those he was counseling through their own struggles. I shared that, at various points in my life, I kept the same practice but had never read a book on the subject. He shared a bit deeper about his struggle and this ancient practice, being vulnerable with me, a stranger, about his spiritual searching. He wasn’t oversharing, but he was being honest in a rare way. It reminded me of a spiritual search I’ve been on for years.

Feeling surprisingly confident that he would hear my spiritual struggle, I shared that I can’t seem to understand blessings.

For years, I’ve struggled with this idea. How can these 2 things both be true: God blesses me and I bless God? What’s more, how can humans pronounce blessings on other humans, but also “bless the Lord” (Psalm 34; 103). What is a blessing, then? The best I could reconcile at that moment was that, when God speaks truth about Godself, God is said to be singing God’s own praises. God praises Godself. This isn’t arrogant, it’s just the truth of the matter. Only God is great, and it’s speaking truth to say so. Therefore, by the power of God, I can be blessed, bless others, bless food, and also bless God. God blesses Godself through me, who seeks to do as Scripture instructs and “Bless the Lord.” My willingness is the conduit by which God blesses Godself.

As I’s hoped, my fellow psalm-prayier listened. Then he considered, silent. Just was I beginning to regret my decision, he stepped into my wonder and searching. For several minutes we shared back and forth, building off one another’s ideas.

“If you bless someone,” he said, “that’s bestowing something. All they have, or all they are at that time, they give to you.”

“So it isn’t by an authority,” I realized, “but a gift from ourselves.”

“You know,” continued the man, “when a man asks for family’s blessing to marry, he’s asking for permission. But more than that, he’s asking for harmony. Harmony between the new family and the old, plus the different families coming together. It’s harmony.”

“And more than harmony,” I realized. “They will support and be devoted to helping that marriage work. Welcoming the new person as part of the original family forever is part of that. So is giving their full support to the betterment and success of the couple.”

“Yes,” he said. “A blessing promises support forever.”

Harmony, thriving, community. Now that I think of it, blessing sounds a lot like Shalom.

I have shared this struggle with at least 15 people over the past 5 or 6 years, former pastors and Bible study leaders and ministers and friends. But only this stranger ever wondered with me. Only he tried to find an answer with me, and he didn’t seek the easy ones. He took my struggle seriously, listened to me, and sought out understanding. I can’t say I’m done in my searching on this subject, but this man helped me travel miles further in 3 minutes then I’d gotten on my own in 5 years. Every moment spent in that conversation was a tremendous gift from God.

I helped him find a couple of books that we felt related to other spiritual interests. He even came back twice the next day, the first time to thank me for recommending a book of devotions for people struggling with depression, the second with a friend we was convincing to buy a copy of one of the books he’d bought the day before. I noticed his enthusiasm to bring people along on his journey. That was what had happened with me. He reminded me of Jesus’s apostle Andrew, who always seemed to be bringing someone to Jesus (boy with bread and fish, Gentiles, his brotherPeter). His openness and willingness to listen invited trust as well as community. And, perhaps most important of all, once someone trusted in him, he remained faithful.

If you’re somehow reading this, stranger, thank you. I hadn’t considered that blessings are like gifts, not words speaking principles into being. Like you said, Isaac blessed his two sons and, once he accidentally give Esau’s blessing to Jacob, he could not take it back. He had thrown his full support and harmony behind his deceitful younger son. Maybe in a couple of years we can publish your book on praying the psalms.

If You’ve Been Having Trouble Praying, Too

It turns out I haven’t been taking very good care of myself. In what I’ve been eating, in how little I’ve been sleeping, in pent up stress, in how much I’ve been traveling, etc. My body rebelled, necessitating a sick day, and earning me a bit of a tongue lashing from my doctor at my annual physical. My numbers are all fine, but my headaches, migraines, poor sleep, and illness are most likely manifestations of not dealing with this month’s stress well. Plus, I kept writing. And though I’m relieved and proud that I can call myself a NaNoWriMo 2016 winner, it was its own brand of exhausting.

Lots of people in my feeds have been sharing lists of things to do to take better care of yourself, and I am reading them. But I don’t really want to make one. They’re already out there, and I haven’t been doing those things anyway. For me, I know my life is way out of balance (1) when I’m not praying, and (2) when I’m not writing. I need both, and I can do one without the other but I’m still not really healthy that way. And, for me, prayer is the most important of the two. My writing often comes out of prayer and Bible reading. So I’m going to recommend something that has helped me in the past.

If you are struggling and unable to put words to your prayers, remember that prayer, at its most basic, is a conversation. You don’t need to make up your own words to have a conversation. And God doesn’t need words to understand you (Romans 8:26).

Recently, I was sitting in a concert feeling incredibly wounded about a situation in my life. I also felt guilty because I was at something fun with great people but I felt so preoccupied and hurt. And so many other people have such worse hurts. I thought of praying to God but I didn’t know what to say. And I didn’t know what God might be trying to say to me, if anything.

So I tried not to stress about it. I wrapped a scarf around my shoulders (which helps me feel protected when I don’t need it to help me feel warm) and just listened to the music. When a melody touched me, I imagined God feeling it, too, through me. Like electricity. I opened feelings to God without words, letting those feelings ride the melodies I was already sending heavenward. And I kept sitting there, and I kept wanting, and I kept hurting. Performers were singing and dancing to “Upton Funk” and “Soul Man” and I was following along, even clapping, but my brain kept returning me to the hard place and the pain. I couldn’t stop thinking about this certain situation in my life. I couldn’t stop hurting.

And then there was a song that seemed to heal me. Not completely, let’s not be ridiculous, but it was the turning point. It wasn’t the lyrics. It wasn’t the tune. I’d heard the song before, even that day. But this time I had this open line to God, and I’d been sending things to God, and in this song I felt like God sent something back to me. Of course, I didn’t really notice until it was over. But when I did notice, I realized I hadn’t thought of the situation the entire time. I’d had three uninterrupted minutes of enjoying something beautiful.

What a great distraction! I thought. But when my mind touched the painful situation again, this time it didn’t stick me with its claws and drag me back into its darkness and pain. My thoughts brushed by it and just moved away. The tide had shifted. The current no longer pulled me to that pain. Now, the current led me away from the pain, even when I intentionally thought about the situation. And, I could choose not to think about the situation. That hadn’t been possible four minutes earlier.

I felt like God had reached through that song, which was always on the set list, and used it to touch my heart and mind with peace. This wasn’t just distraction, like dinner had been earlier that evening. This was dealing, and a gift.

Prayer doesn’t change the situation but it does change me. And look! I’m writing.

Maybe you have been struggling to write but you aren’t quite as bad off as I’ve been. If so, trying praying a psalm. Psalms 103, 27, and 23 are good starting points. Say the lines aloud that resonate with you. Write them down. Or just underline or highlight them. If there’s something that isn’t true of you right now but that you wish were true, say it out loud. Mark it. Maybe write down the date next to the psalm number and, in six months or eight years, you’ll find that date again. You may not remember by then what you were going through, or you might remember exactly. Regardless, you’ll know and be grateful that you aren’t in the same place anymore.

If you don’t feel able to pray a psalm either, try praying a song. A year and a half ago, I had a playlist of three: Audrey Assad’s “Run Forward,” Gungor’s “Beautiful Things,” and Hillsong’s “Oceans” (I know, I know, but it helped me). Audrey Assad has a new album of hymns out. Or pick Hamilton songs and disco hits. A bouncy new acapella Christmas song. It doesn’t really matter. The concert I attended opened with “Uptown Funk,” remember? My goal was to gather songs with lyrics or melodies or something that spoke to all the turmoil inside me, or just that I wanted to be true. Open yourself up the song’s messages and, as you listen or sing along, release those inner feelings, frustrations, fears, and hopes heavenward.

The goal is to open the lock on your chest that keeps everything inside, and to release those things to God. I promise God can handle them. You may not, I may not, your family may not, the church may not, but God can. God created you. God knows what and who God made.