The God of Springtime

A few years ago, I sustained a tough relational injury.  A friend of several years and I were suddenly and dramatically on the outs. I had tried everything I could think of to reconcile the situation, but my attempts were all in vain. Eighteen months passed with no words between us … such a strong connection we’d enjoyed, and then poof—it was gone. I still loved this person. I still cared for this person. I still longed to call this person my friend. And yet it had become clear to me that by continuing to reach out when he clearly didn’t wish to engage might make an already tenuous situation far worse.

At about month nineteen, I was standing in my flower garden in front of my house, picking weeds and watering plants, when my phone rang. Gardening is cheap therapy for me, and I find that the neater my yard looks, the neater my inner world tends to be. I answered the call and heard my friend’s voice on the other end of the line.

As we exchanged benign greetings in that awkward way you do, when silence has distanced you for so long, I happened to be watering a mound of dead foliage. In Colorado, you can stick a perennial in the ground and expect it to do well for about a year, even as it probably will not come back. Our soil is terrible, our winters can be long and harsh, and outdoor miracles are rarely seen. I remember thinking, “Why am I wasting precious water on this pile of shriveled-up leaves and stubs? This flower is not coming back …” I was having this conversation with myself when my phone began to buzz.

Twenty minutes into the restorative, forgiveness-drenched conversation that had been nineteen months coming, while I was still resting on a rake in my front yard, I absentmindedly kicked over some mulch on that plant I just knew was dead, and that’s when I saw it: the tiniest of tiny green shoots. It felt like a nod from God: “What you thought was dead isn’t dead, Brady. I’m Master of all-things-new …”

Even as a young boy, I remember being fascinated with nature, with how trees could go to sleep and then, a season later, wake again. When I ended that call with my friend, I thought about winter, and spring. “I’m so glad I didn’t discard that relationship in wintertime, when everything’s cold and bleak,” I told Pam. “I’m so glad I waited on springtime, when things always come back to life.”

God is a God of springtime, the Bible promises. Behold, he is doing new things.

 

This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Remarkable, which releases in the Fall of 2019.

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The Home and the Church – The Great Partnership

Recently, I was in a meeting with some church leaders, talking about complex social concerns like suicide, depression, porn addiction, and sexual brokenness. These issues are complicated and nuanced, for sure. During the conversation, which lasted for several hours, one of the leaders said the reason these issues have not been solved was because the church had not taught enough on the topics.

I know it’s easy to blame our societal ills on failures from the pulpit, but it deflects the blame from the real culprit. The church should certainly tackle all these issues – consistently, purposely and graciously. However, the family has always been the best place to educate and inform. Discipleship, teaching and training should always begin at home and be reinforced at church. Too many people are wanting the church to do heavy lifting that should be happening around our dinner tables.

When family life is robust and centered on holy conversations, kids are taught by their parents. Good parents refuse to wait for others to have healthy conversations with their own kids. Right now, pastors are feeling enormous pressures to fill the gaps left by broken families. I know most of my sermons contain information that’s being heard for the first time and most people in my church don’t have mature mentors to further process what I’m teaching them.

For most people, this creates a huge gulf in the discipleship journey. The home has no answers for them, the world is telling them lies, the church is trying, but failing to tackle all their concerns, therefore, people are left immature and discouraged. To make matters worse, these same people are attending church less than ever, which means they’re missing most of what’s actually being taught. Right now, the most committed people in our churches attend less than 2 1/2 Sundays per month and there’s no margin in their calendars for advanced classes and discipleship courses.

Believe me, most pastors want to make disciples. This is our sacred duty. We want people to grow up, be strong,  get well, and find the truth. At times, it seems the church is overwhelmed with pressures to preach on a myriad of complex issues, like violence, politics, immigration, sexuality, abuse, mental health, and so many others. All are critical topics, but a 30-minute message on Sunday will not suffice.

We must take individual responsibility for our homes and for our friends. Turn off the devices, and have real conversations. Do this regularly. Make it a habit. Each week, we must put ourselves in a small circle of trusted friends and talk deeply about the complexities of life. We must listen well, pray sincerely and not relent until truth is found.  Then come to the church and help your pastor lead those who are abandoned and distraught.

Don’t show up on Sunday wanting all your questions answered. Show up on Sundays and get involved with the people sitting around you. Most of them do not have homes and families that are safe for vulnerable conversations. Offer them your friendship, your empathy and your prayers. Go make disciples in partnership with your church and pastor. He needs you. I need you.

 

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Five Questions I Ask About New Life

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Some thoughts on marriage …

If you long to experience the kind of marital relationship that God envisioned from the start, you can begin by first taking an honest look at what’s captivating you right now in life. What or who has captured your imagination? What are you fascinated by these days? What is enamoring you and exciting you? And how does your spouse fit into that scene?

If you’re unsure how to answer these questions, let me give you a shortcut. The next time your spouse enters the room, pay attention to how you react. Do your eyes follow him across the room? Do you get up from where you’re sitting so she doesn’t have to come to you? Do you greet each other with a hug and a kiss—is there a little peck at least? Or do you barely look up from what you’re doing, mumble a “hey,” and wonder why you couldn’t have married someone who doesn’t breathe so loud.

Now, if your spouse just left to go to the restroom, the fanfare I describe might be a bit much. But when you’ve been separated for a block of several hours or an entire workday, wouldn’t a little intention serve you both well? Assess whether you’re interested in your husband. Assess whether you’re fascinated by your wife. Assess whether your spouse excites you any longer. Assess where you’re pointing your attention these days.

Next, once you’ve made your assessment, bring those honest findings to God. Before blaming your spouse for any distance you feel with them, talk about this distance with God. Before blaming your spouse for any distance you feel with God, work on bridging that gap yourself. The best marriages I know are made up of two people who are diligent to get their deepest needs met by their heavenly Father so that they don’t come to their spouse insecure, needy, and filled with doubt. They work out those issues in quiet times of solo reflection and prayer, thus bringing fulfilled hearts and lives to their spouse. Renowned physician and marriage and family therapist Ed Wheat used to always say, “Anyone who believes that marriage is a 50/50 proposition is kidding themselves. The best marriages are always 100/100.”

So: Look to God for the contentment, fulfillment, and peace that God, alone, can provide. And also: Don’t ask your spouse to be him.

On to our third point, which is this: Remember that you were made for covenant. Our God is a covenant God, which means that his followers are covenant people. The “I’m not cut out for marriage” claim that presently married ones make? Complete. Utter. Bunk.

Fourth, regardless where you’ve been, what you’ve done, or whom you’ve done it with, you simply must come around to believing that healing is yours to be had. Paul reminded the church of Corinth of this very truth: “He will keep you strong to the end,” he wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:8, “so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns.”

God can strengthen you.

God can strengthen your spouse.

God can strengthen your marriage.

God can strengthen your bond.

The weakening you’ve known can be reversed. God longs to keep you strong ‘til the end. Thoughts can change. Attitudes can change. Brains can change. Habits can change. Cravings can change. Patterns can change. Everything can be changed.

Communication styles can improve. Sexual brokenness can be made whole. Financial mismanagement can be redeemed. Sorrows can be worked through. I’m telling you, everything can change in an instant, when God is given room to run.

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A Tale of Two Teachers and How I Found Grace

WHEN I WAS a freshman in high school, my English teacher was a crotchety killjoy named Mrs. Bright. She always wore bulky double-knit dresses and a scowl on her face, but the glower was understandable. In those days and in our neck of the woods, most classes were segregated by gender, and having a room full of hungry teenage boys during the hour just before lunch would have made even Mother Teresa mean.

While school cafeterias never have been known for stellar cuisine, ours was staffed by East Texas women who knew how to fatten up kids. Mashed potatoes and gravy, juicy slices of meatloaf, homemade apple pie—you can’t imagine my caloric intake during the first year of high school. The lunchroom happened to be just down the hall from my English class, which meant I could always smell homemade butter rolls rising to perfection, even as Mrs. Bright hassled me about properly conjugating verbs.

Granted, Mrs. Bright had no choice but to be militaristic. She knew that she couldn’t afford to smile, relax, or tolerate misbehavior of any kind, because if given even an inch of leeway, my friends and I always took a mile. As a result, on more than a few occasions, I found myself in Mr. Lowry’s grip, awaiting a well-deserved paddling.

Mr. Lowry was our school’s assistant principal, and he had a special paddle that he would use on disruptive freshman boys. It had a series of holes drilled in it to give the blows a little more force, and about once a week, I’d see one of my buddies get dragged out into the hallway and then hear three steady swipes—pow! pow! pow! You’d think I would have learned from the pain of my pals, but you’d be giving me far too much credit. On more than a few occasions, Mrs. Bright would spear me with her gaze and point that thick index finger toward the hallway. I knew perfectly well what that meant.

Eventually, thankfully, I was rescued from my plight. Dad’s boss, as well as a little divine intervention, saved the day.

A few weeks before I began my sophomore year of high school, my father received a job transfer, which meant my family got to pack our belongings and head to Simsboro, Louisiana. I enrolled in a brand-new school, and my English teacher was a man named Mr. Burt. Perhaps the most creative, energetic, passionate teacher I’d ever had, Mr. Burt singlehandedly inspired me to welcome grammar as a friend and, later, to work toward a minor in English literature.

Mr. Burt was classically handsome and athletic—the kind of guy every teenage girl swooned over and every teenage boy idolized. He was the spitting image of Tom Selleck, back when Tom Selleck was the coolest of cool. He was also Robin Williams in “Dead Poets’ Society,” long before the movie came out, and he made studying Shakespeare the most entertaining part of my day.

Looking back, switching from one teacher to another seems so inconsequential—but sometimes a simple shift is all it takes to reinvent a life.

Many years after those beloved high school days, I came across a verse of Scripture that spread Turf Builder on my budding spiritual life. Galatians 3:23-26 says, “Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. The law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith” (NIV).

So that’s what the Law was for, I remember thinking. The Law—God’s Law—was a necessary “locking-up” in anticipation of freedom later on. It was a way to show us that without some sort of rescue, we’d stay locked up forever in our futile attempts to follow the rules, measure up, and make the grade with God.

Before we know God through Christ, we are “in custody” under the Law in the same way that a child who is orphaned today will be appointed a custodian who will help that child grow into a responsible adult. That custodian has all the rights of a parent. He or she has rights over any assets the child possesses, over the child’s training, and over the child’s protection, which is exactly the role of the Law in the lives of those who don’t yet know Jesus Christ.

If you’re not a believer in Christ, then the Law is holding you and keeping you until you surrender your life to him. Day by day, that Law will be an irritating reminder to you that you simply cannot measure up to God’s standard by relying on your own wit, wisdom, and strength. Mirroring the method used by Mrs. Bright, the Law intends to bear down on you, put restrictions on you, and remind you that you will never measure up. So, yes, it can frustrate you and indict you, but it can also serve to point you to Christ.

This is the reason Jesus came to planet Earth—to fulfill the requirements of the Law for derelicts like you and me. Now that his work is complete, you and I and every other human being alive have a choice to make. We can either insist on trying to keep the Law—spending our days racking up more good deeds for God—or else we can trust in the sacrifice Christ made, and in doing so, get transferred to his love-fueled, life-giving class. Whereas the Law said, “You’ll never measure up,” Jesus says, “You will fall and you will fail, but my sacrifice will cover your sins. Accept my love and live redeemed. I am your teacher now.”

Ahhh. Sweet relief. Farewell, Mrs. Bright.

Here’s the interesting thing: When I was in Mr. Burt’s class, I proved myself far more diligent than I ever did for Mrs. Bright. Rules and regulations only served to oppress me, while freedom compelled me to serve. Satisfying a worthy master is infinitely more exciting than slaving away to placate a master who in the end can never be pleased.

We’re freed from spiritual slavery to become bond slaves to the living Christ. In other words, once we embrace our identity as God’s daughters and sons, it’s our joy to adhere to his ways. Sometimes a simple shift is all it takes to reinvent a life.

 

 

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All Life Is Sacred

Recently, our church family gathered to worship and pray on a Wednesday night. At the end of the service, I felt compelled to receive a spontaneous offering to purchase tactical safety gear for our local county deputies. The response was extraordinary as over $81,000 was given in just a few minutes, enough to fully outfit 58 officers with state of the art equipment designed to keep them safe during dangerous encounters.

We’re a pro-life congregation, meaning we believe all life is given to us by God and therefore, sacred. We support ministries that help the unborn, we operate a ministry empowering single moms to overcome poverty and homelessness and we help serve the poorest women in our city with professional and free healthcare. Because we’re pro-life, we also responded to the opportunity to help protect our deputies who don’t have proper equipment.

All life is sacred, therefore, any time we have the ability to preserve, defend or celebrate life, we heartily step into those opportunities. Our law enforcement community has the unenviable task of maintaining order in a world gone mad with violence. Just a few weeks ago, a young deputy, who has attended our church since he was teenager, lost his life needlessly after pulling over a suspect driving a stolen car. In an instant, Micah Flick lost his life and his wife and twins lost a husband and dad.

At his funeral, the County Sheriff told me over 150 of his deputies didn’t have the necessary gear to protect them from the most dangerous weapons. Our church heard and responded with the offering. Soon, we hope all the officers on our streets are protected.

I realize not everyone will agree with me about this issue. Many believe the church in America needs to be more vocal about gun violence and the easy access of military-grade weapons, especially those sold to people with mental health concerns. I agree that our voice and vote will matter profoundly on these issues. Let’s make every decision based on the right questions. What gives us life? What saves lives? What honors life? Does every life matter, regardless of citizenship, skin color or party affiliation?

Some of the choices ahead will be tough for our culture to embrace, but it’s time for life. Violence, racism, partisan hatred, and tribal fears are not bringing us life. The Holy Spirit is the Lord, the giver of life. The church is a gathered force filled with the Holy Spirit, so let’s breathe life on a culture that’s dying. Every time there’s a choice, let’s speak life, defend life and give our money for life.

That’s what happened at the end of a Wednesday night prayer meeting not long ago at New Life. We chose hope and life over fear. We’re not naive. We know the world is evil, but we’re now hopeful more deputies can go home at night after doing really dangerous work. We believe life has come to our city, if only in a small way.

 

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The Troubled and Glorious World of Pastors Who Preach

You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. 

Acts 20:20

Since Christianity started, men and women have had the responsibility to preach the Scriptures to their gathered congregations. Some rode horseback through dangerous frontiers and others left the comfort and familiarity of their hometowns to take the good news to distant lands. Many of us studied long years and practiced our craft wherever and whenever the opportunity was presented. No matter how we arrived in the pulpits we now steward, preaching is energizing, frustrating, and exhilarating. Sometimes, all this happens on the same day.

Most weekends, I’m satisfied that I gave my best effort, meaning I prayed, prepared and presented the Scriptures with absolute joy. On a handful of weekends, however, I’ve wrestled with self-doubt and wished that I never had to preach again. But, alas, I repent, pray some more and saddle back up for another weekend.

Over the years I’ve stumbled upon on some misunderstandings about my oratorial calling. I’ve spent many hours with discouraged pastors and frustrated congregants. There are four things I end up sharing to both groups.

 

1. Pastors are really invested in the message.

Preaching is a serious matter to most pastors. Hours have been spent studying the texts, praying for the meetings, and thinking about innovative ways to engage people in a story that started thousands of years ago. When the weekend arrives, we’re invested emotionally and spiritually in a 30-minute message that has the potential to change the destinies of those listening.

Or, it can be awful. Even then, the Holy Spirit can take the scraps of human effort and make something beautiful. This is a pastor’s work –  to teach truths that will probably offend, to encourage the discouraged saints, to compel the cynic to reconsider and to awaken the spiritual sleepers. Because we’ve poured ourselves into this moment of speaking and exhorting, we may need some space after the service to just be alone. Preachers feel really emptied after a sermon, which leads me to the second truth.

 

2. Preaching is exhausting work.

If you’re not tired after preaching, you’re not doing it right. When a sermon has ended, our adrenaline glands are depleted and the emotional energy lost isn’t easily replenished. It’s when we feel the most vulnerable, even if everything went great. For many, we have to regroup and deliver the same message again in less than an hour to another weekend gathering.  Afterwards, we just need a good nap, a long walk and some sunshine to begin feeling human again. That usually happens by Tuesday morning. Seriously.

 

3. Preaching should be more substance than style

Our Western culture is saturated by entertainment and celebrities. Our personal time is entertainment time, therefore the culture shouts to pastors, “If I give my personal time to church, you need to entertain me!” That’s a dangerous trap. Sermons certainly need to be engaging, which means it’s ok to have some fun and to laugh, but our messages are not a spiritual stand-up act. The moment style is prioritized over the weighty substance of Scripture, we and our churches are in trouble. Be wary of preaching that divests itself from the full breadth of human emotions and fails to jar us free from apathy or deception. If you’re not regularly challenged or even convicted by preaching, you’re probably just being entertained. 

 

4. Preaching only starts the conversation.

People have huge expectations from pastors and their sermons. Almost everyone has something they wish the pastor would spend more time on each week. “Preach more on the Holy Spirit.”  “Don’t talk about money.”  “Speak more on politics.” “Please do not speak on politics.” “Today is National ___________ Day and you need to preach about it.” By the way, do all of this is in less than 30 minutes. Sigh.

Neither preachers nor their sermons were  designed to answer all our questions. In fact, the best sermons teach us to ask better questions and then point us along the Scriptural path compelling us to study more. Preaching primes the pump, but seldom fills the tank. Each Sunday, I want people to take one more step, to keep following Jesus and not give up. I want saints to be strengthened, the cynics to be convinced and the prodigal to find their way home. Those are weighty tasks and will probably take a month of Sundays to accomplish, or even a lifetime.

 

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Gigantic Waves of Grace

A man approached me after a Sunday worship service and said that he had been lying in a hospital bed for weeks on end, dealing with complications of his recently diagnosed leukemia. He decided to read through portions of the Bible, in hopes of finding some comfort and hope, when he sensed God directing him to Ephesians 3—the part about how wide and how deep God’s love is. For the first time in forty years, he said, he finally caught the love of his Father. “It came in waves,” he explained to me that Sunday. “Wave after wave of his love.”

The man said he became so overwhelmed by the reality that he actually prayed for God to stop revealing his love, just so the guy could catch his breath. “I can’t take it anymore!” he said aloud. “Just give me a second here to absorb what you’ve already shown me of your love!”

People such as he have seen God’s love, they’ve sensed his love, they’ve felt his love, they’ve known it. And those of us who have experienced this immersion into God’s love now serve him with all our heart and all our strength, because that’s what love compels well-loved people to do. He doesn’t dole out teaspoons full of love, not a soaked dishrag amount of love, but rather wave upon wave upon gigantic, overwhelming wave—washing over us, sweeping under us, surrounding us on all sides. It is wide, it is high, it is deep, it is long. It is in us and all around us and never lets us go. It envelops us and consumes us, it sustains us and empowers us. Wherever we’ve come from and wherever we’re going, we can’t help but run into God’s love.

This messes with the mind, doesn’t it? You can’t comprehend love so all-encompassing as that. All you can do is receive it.

If there were time in heaven, I think you and I would spend our first billion years there exploring the love of God. This is why heaven is filled to overflowing with worship, because God’s mysteries are finally being revealed. And don’t you know that questions regarding his great love must be first on everybody’s list?

Why the blessing?

Why the favor?

Why the care and concern and regard?

Why the provision?

Why the enjoyment?

Why the compassion?

Why the grace?

Until we’re bowing before his visible presence, we’ll never fully grasp the love of God. His love toward us is illogical and irrational and would short-circuit our brains if we could ever get close to sorting it out. But lovingly he says, “Between now and then, by the help of my Spirit, may you know my unknowable love.”

Isn’t that a beautiful thought? It’s like being let in on a divine secret, or like discovering the solution to the most complex puzzle in life. God offers us insider info on something that otherwise can’t be known.

And so I pray fervently and frequently for people I know who do not yet know Christ. I pray that they would be absolutely taken out by wave upon wave upon gigantic, overwhelming wave of God’s love. That they would be drawn by God’s Spirit to his welcoming side and then be given capacity for understanding just how loved they really are.

 

This is an excerpt from a book I wrote several years ago:

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Finding Joy in a Sad World

The last few weeks have been littered with intense episodes of sadness. First, we lost a young sherrif’s deputy, killed in the line of duty. A few days later, Pam and I lost a close friend to cancer. She was only 57. Two days later, 17 students were gunned down in their Florida school.  It seems grief and sorrow comes in waves, but lately it has felt more like a tsunami.

In the midst of this sadness, we hosted two funerals for our fallen brother, and 19 worship services in a two-week stretch. We’ve helped console a grieving city, offering hope and joy where there seemed to be be none. We’ve prayed, read aloud the Psalms, sang hopeful songs and sat quietly and listened to those who have lost so much.

Pastors and church leaders have wrestled with this tension for centuries. We have the sacred duty to point out the good news in a world that is found lacking. We have something to offer that is real and holy, but we have no magic formulas to make the pain go away. Grieving is a journey and shortcuts are not allowed.

In John 11, Jesus himself loses Lazarus, a really close friend. Once Jesus arrives at the family home, he is met by two sisters who had just lost their brother. Martha had questions and she was a bit angry at Jesus for not being there to prevent the loss of life. Jesus tells her “I am the resurrection” – he is the answer. Mary is another woman in the story and all she had was tears. The scriptures tell us that Jesus wept with her. Some days, we are Martha, with lots of questions. Some days, we are Mary, with lots of tears. Jesus is ok with both.

I’m telling the story of our last two weeks to remind my pastor friends that church services must allow for laments, sadness and sorrow.  It’s ok to mourn with those who mourn. It’s ok to hold hands and cry with those who have lost loved ones. It’s human to grieve.

Our worship services are usually joyful and inspirational. We laugh a lot at New Life and we have real rejoicing when we sing, preach and pray.  We’re also aware that not every worship service has to feel like a Disney production. The gathered church actually has the miraculous mandate to walk with people along the road of suffering until they get through the valleys of death. We’ve learned to embrace people in their place of weeping but not leave them there. 

We’re resurrection people who have been brought back to life. All of us who follow Jesus have the same story to tell. We were dead in our sins, but we found grace and a God who was pursuing us. We were once in darkness, but we now live in the light. That’s why we see sadness and sorrow differently. We know it’s not final and not the end. We know joy does come in the morning.

One day soon, Jesus has promised to return and set things right. Violence and crime will cease and the Prince of Peace will rule. Cancer will claim no more victims. We believe this. That’s why our hope is anchored in something that cannot be shaken by bad news. We’ve learned to sing about the morning while living at midnight.

I leave you with the words of Jesus, spoken to his devoted followers days before his own death and resurrection.

It will seem like all hell has broken loose—sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking. And then—then!—they’ll see the Son of Man welcomed in grand style—a glorious welcome! When all this starts to happen, up on your feet. Stand tall with your heads high. Help is on the way!” Luke 21-25-28 MSG

 

 

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A Journey Through the Psalms – The Language of Our Faith

For the next several months at New Life, we’re teaching and praying through many of the iconic Psalms that have shaped the language of our faith.  Take some time to read this brief introduction and explanation of why the Psalms are so important for us today. 

Why do we love the Psalms so? One could drop into the Psalter almost at random to illustrate the point I would like to make, but consider for a moment one of our most beloved, Psalm 63:

You, God, are my God,

earnestly I seek you;

I thirst for you,

my whole being longs for you,

in a dry and parched land

where there is no water… (v.1)

It is hard to read such words and retain any semblance of objectivity. More or less immediately, a transition begins to occur in how we are engaging the text. We move from being detached observers to finding ourselves caught up, involved, even implicated in the poetry. The words on the page mysteriously and perhaps even without our noticing it become ours.

On my bed I remember you;

I think of you through the watches of the night.

Because you are my help,

I sing in the shadow of your wings.

I cling to you;

your right hand upholds me… (vv. 6-8).

Before we know it, we find ourselves claiming the words of the Psalmist as our own words, as devastatingly accurate statements on the condition of our own souls, as cries emerging from the depths of our own lives. We are the thirsty ones. We are the ones who long for God as in a dry and weary land. We are the ones who remember God on our beds, whose hearts search for him during the long watches of dark and desolate nights. We are the ones clinging to him with all our might, finding therein our lives mysteriously upheld by his righteous right hand.

And so we sit, early in the morning or late at night or during a break in our busy day, with the text of Scripture on our laps, walking the pattern of spiritual devotion that the Psalmist many centuries earlier laid out for us by taking these ancient-yet-living words on our lips. In so doing, deep reservoirs of emotion open up in us. Tears fall. Joy surges. Hope returns. And even more: When our time of devotion is concluded we discover that the words of the Psalmist are, entirely on their own (so it seems), burrowing into our souls, creating new patterns of thought and feeling and action. Before long, the deep music of our days and weeks and months and years goes something like: You God, are my God, earnestly I seek you…

This is the power of the Psalter. It is one of the important reasons it is part of our canon. It speaks to us where we are but refuses to leave us where we are. The Psalms, we may say, convert us precisely by involving us—messy, complex, altogether unfinished, and full of contradictions—in the great cogent sweep of God’s redemptive work. It does this by putting words on our lips and inviting us to make them ours. John Goldingay notes that “the Bible assumes that we do not know instinctively how to talk with God but rather need some help with knowing how to do so.”

The Psalms are instruction. It’s no wonder that many have theorized that the five books of the Psalter are intended to correspond symbolically to the five books of the Pentateuch. When we come to the Psalms, we are entering the school of prayer. Martin Luther commented that the Psalms were given to us in order to help us “adapt and adjust our minds and feelings so that they are in accord with the sense of the Psalms,” which for Luther were a picture into the will of God for his people.

We are not born into this world instinctively knowing what is available to us in covenant relationship with God. But the Psalms can teach us; they “make it possible to say things that are otherwise unsayable…they have the capacity to free us to talk about things we cannot talk about anywhere else.”

The Book of Psalms dignifies our lives by converting our imaginations to a God-enriched, covenant-shaped world, fraught with challenge and yet shot through everywhere with energetic hope. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…?” finds its completion in “They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!” (Psalm 22). The ebb and flow of desolation and exultation, of lament and praise, is the texture of the Psalms, even as it is the texture of our very lives. When we pray the Psalms, we find the music of our little peaks and valleys caught up in the great fugue of God’s historical, redemptive work.

 

Special thanks to Andrew Arndt, Glenn Packiam and Jason Jackson, and our New Life teaching team for helping write this introduction to the Psalms.

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