When bleakness is more than midwinter

The year 2020 will go down in history as one of the most challenging in memory. Some have suffered indescribably, losing friends, family, livelihoods, health, meaningful relationships…even life itself. But even those of us who have not fared so badly in the pandemic will, with few exceptions, have experienced times when Psalm 77 has reflected their pain with alarming accuracy.

The prayers that have been flung at God, and appeared to bounce off the wall. The anxious nights of soul-searching. The feeling that if God is there at all, he’s just plain bored and switched off from my needs, or maybe never cared anyway. The worry that I’ve pushed him too far, with no way to get back into his favour.

Psalm 77 also gives us the clue of what to do in these darkest of times. Verse 10, ‘THEN…’ Then you make a decision to focus on how God has handled difficult situations in the past. How God has been faithful. How powerful he is. How he turned a terrible situation around. How he worked miracles…

And lastly, how this awesome, almighty, majestic God who is capable of literally turning the world upside down, will lead those he loves, tenderly, lovingly, gently, as the Good Shepherd that he is.

God many times instructed the Israelites to educate their children in the history of their people, tell them the stories, ground them in the details, keep them in the forefront of their minds. Knowledge of what God has done in the past builds our faith, and is the scaffolding on which can grow hope for the future.

Some people find it helpful to keep a journal of answers to prayer, things to be grateful for, times of rejoicing, to look back on. The bible itself is full of wondrous stories of God’s work in our world. These are our weapons to fight fear, anxiety, dread, sorrow and negative thoughts. They plant the seeds of hope for our future, and we all need that.

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Where honour is due – Psalm 76

God loves me. That’s great news! He wants to be my friend, advocate, helper, counsellor. He’s willing to forgive me when I get it wrong, He gives me strength, wisdom, and power to help me get it right. Such great news!

What God will never be, is my pal, my mate, my chum. A glance at Psalm 76 will tell you why. Pretty much every verse describes his awesome power and fearful majesty, his insurmountable greatness, unconquerable might and unquestionable justice.

What a mighty God we serve! His love is richly abundant, his kindness to us knows no limit. But never, never, never take it for granted. That the God who could snuff us out without the slightest effort, chose the way of love, and grace and humility in sending his precious Son to earth, was a miracle indeed. But we should take care to honour and worship him, recognising this, his gift to us.

We are fond of our ‘human rights’. God is not. He requires us to treat one another with justice and love, and fiercely defends ‘all the afflicted of the land’. But nothing he gives us or does for us is our ‘right’. It is not deserved, it is pure love and grace – his choice to give. Thankfully, he delights to do so, for we have a ‘right’ to nothing!

Whilst we enjoy his amazing love, mercy and goodness towards us, let us never lose sight of the fearful, awesome majesty of our God. Let us give him the honour he is due.

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When my world is shaking – Psalm 75

I’ve been around a while, and I think this has been one of the most insecure times my world has known. Truly, nobody has any idea what tomorrow will bring. Hopefully better Covid testing, or even better, a reliable vaccine. We look forward to a time when life will return to ‘normal’ – when businesses can thrive again, when we can go on holiday, when we can plan for the future and have some expectation of it happening.

Some years ago, a friend quoted a man he’d been talking to, who’d got life ‘together’ – a good job, home, great wife, lovely kids…so he didn’t need God, he said. Within 6 months, he’d lost his job. With his mortgage unpaid he lost the house, so his wife left him and took the kids with her. At the best of times, it’s dangerously arrogant to think you’ll never need God’s help.

Now, ‘the earth and all its people quake’ as Psalm 75 puts it (v3). If you’ve never felt you needed God before, this is the time to think again. I want to live in a world, not where everything is rosy – that has never been promised! But in a place where I know that someone good is in control, where God is saying, “It is I who hold its pillars firm.” That is the place of ultimate security.

There are still people who believe in themselves, think they can have life together if they push hard enough. Sadly, many businesses and jobs have teetered or crashed in these troubling times, and not because people haven’t worked hard enough. Not even Christians are immune to damage and difficulties. The difference is, they know where their help comes from, and aren’t too proud to ask.

God is often referred to in the bible, as a ‘strong tower’. The place we can run in to at difficult times, the place we can know his assurance and safety. Psalm 75:1 says we can thank God because his Name is near. His name, his personhood. Near. With me, close. That’s the place to be when my world is shaking. And that’s why we can give thanks, and sing praises to God whatever our situation.

Psalm 75:1-6
Psalm 75:6-10

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POMS with a big but – Psalm 74

It’s just not fair! Why doesn’t God DO something about it? He’s the only one who can, and I don’t see any movement there. You know that feeling? That’s what Psalm 74 is about. All the way through to verse 11, which could be translated as ‘Pull your finger out God, and do something!” The Psalmist was having a fit of the POMS – Poor Old Me. He felt rejected, ignored, forgotten, helpless and without hope.

Then comes the BUT (v12). But you, O God…When you are feeling like this, you need to remind yourself who God is, and what he is capable of. He has power over all creatures, over the physical landscape, over time, the universe, the seasons…

And then there was his covenant (v20). This was a promise that God made, to look after his people, so long as they obeyed and trusted him. The Psalmist felt the need to remind God that he’d promised to take care of them. But maybe what he was actually doing, was reminding himself…for God doesn’t forget.

What the Psalmist needed to do, was take hold of that Covenant, and trust that God knew what he was doing. That’s when he could turn the Poor Old Me into Peace Of Mind.

Psalms like this one remind us that our experience of life is not very different some 3000 years later. When things are going wrong, we jump to the conclusion that God isn’t interested, doesn’t see it, doesn’t care.

But the truth is, God fights the battles for us, just not always in the way we think he should. When Jesus was arrested and mocked, spat upon, beaten and killed, who could have known then, that he was claiming the greatest victory the world had ever seen, or would ever know? The disciples expected that the Kingdom of God would be won through a mighty warrior leading the host of Heaven to visible battle over all their oppressors. At that moment they could not perceive the glorious victory won through the cross.

Be certain, whatever it looks like, however long the wait, you are precious to God, and he will never, never forsake those who turn to him.

Psalm 74:1-5Psalm 74:6-17Psalm 74:18-23

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F.O.M.O – Psalm 73

Not so long ago, when we could go to a restaurant as a family, we’d all make our choices, then wait…until the kitchen doors opened, and the meals were set before us, one by one. But – terrible thought – what if the meal I have chosen does not look as good as someone else’s…and I have to sit and watch them gorge their way through their delights, while I’m a bit disappointed in mine? Fear Of Missing Out. It can take all the joy out of of what should be a thoroughly pleasurable evening out!

We can do that in our lives too. Have I made the right career choice? Does someone else’s husband/wife seem so much better than the partner I selected? What if I’d chosen a different path? Have I messed up on life, made bad decisions, missed out on the best?

Do you ever wonder if all the effort of trying to live life as a Christian is really worth all the effort? Self-denial doesn’t come easily to most of us; then there’s the time and effort of spiritual disciplines like prayer and bible study, not to mention the pull on the wallet for tithes and offerings! Was this really the best choice for my life, compared to others, who live life free as birds, doing what they please, with no hidden deity to be accountable to?

This is the ‘oppressive’ (v16) question the writer of Psalm 73 was asking himself. The whole Psalm turns on v17, “till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.” Coming into the presence of God cleared his head, and he could see it all. Like when you realise that glorious fluffy desert tastes of nothing. The people who live without God, are not free at all. They are on a slippery slope, with no-one to call out to when they run into trouble. The riches and power they have stored up for themselves are lost to them the minute they pass out of this world. There will be no-one to hold their hand then. Those who live for the present have that, nothing more.

What a contrast to the joy set before those who choose to follow Jesus, and chase after God! “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 73:1-9Psalm 73:10-22Psalm 73:23-28

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Followers – Psalm 72

I have a video of my grandchildren when they were quite small, all dressed up as rock stars, playing a variety of toy instruments. With the mandatory shades – so cute! Children automatically copy what they see. That’s why it’s so important they get the right role models.

Psalm 72 is thought to be David’s final blessing on his son, Solomon, who would succeed him as king. David had come to know God, through a lifetime of spending time in his presence. The things he prayed over Solomon, were the things he knew were in God’s nature – he was asking that this younger man might see God as his role model, and emulate his ways.

And isn’t that something we should all be doing – getting to know God and copying him? Those who have little people in their lives have an extra responsibility in this area. For who would have been Solomon’s first role model, if not his own father David? If our lives are not modelled on our Father God, what example are we setting to those who watch us? To be sure, they will copy what they see, say and experience. Matthew Henry commented on this Psalm – ‘The best we can ask of God for our children is, that God would give them wisdom and grace to know and to do their duty.’ how will they know ‘their duty’ if they have not seen it in us?

Young or old, with youngsters around or not, ask yourself – Who is my role-model? Because the one you are following determines your destination. Psalm 72:1-7Psalm 72:7-17Psalm 72:18-20

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Confidence – Psalm 71

The husband of a friend of mine was a shy, reticent guy. You’d see Martin shuffling down the street, head down, looking at no-one. He was a kind and loving husband and father, but he had no job, no qualifications, no connections, no references, no hope. Then one day, another friend’s husband, who had a managerial post, heard about his situation, decided to take a chance on him, and found him a job on the shop floor. A few weeks later I saw a guy who looked like Martin walking down the street, but this man stood erect, smartly dressed, and proudly holding his head high. It was the same person but what a difference the confidence of having employment made – I have never seen a man so transformed!

David, the writer of the Psalms had confidence. Fearless against bears, lions, giants, he also knew where to run when he felt out of his depth.  Psalm 71: 5 – “For you have been my hope, O Sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth…” David faced more than his fair share of challenges in life, but what made him able to stand up tall in the face of the most dire circumstances, was the knowledge that, “Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up. You will increase my honour and comfort me once more.” (v20-21)

When we are facing difficulties, our confidence easily ebbs away, we don’t want to face people, we stop believing in ourselves.We stop believing that things can ever be right again. One thing I like about Psalm 71, is the last verse. David was still praying about the difficulties, yet looked forward to the victory and joy, believing they were already his. That is confidence. It didn’t come because David was a good, capable bloke, but because he had grounded himself in getting to know God. He had come to understand that God was with him and for him…that God believed in him, and would work things out His way, in His time. God can transform our situations, and he can transform us.

Psalm 71:1-10Psalm 71:10-20Psalm 71:21-24

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Help! I’m under attack – Psalm 70

I only had one boss in my working life, who did not like me. She made my life difficult, in the hope I’d resign. She was also dishonest in her dealings, and the day of reckoning eventually came for her. It would have been easy to enjoy seeing her with egg on her face, but actually, it gave me no pleasure. She was just a human being who made mistakes, and God gave me the grace to forgive her, just as He has forgiven me. David’s attitude  towards his enemies in Psalm 70 was understandable. They didn’t just give him a hard time, they threatened his life.

The context of this Psalm is not mentioned, but I wonder if it happened before David’s sin with Bathsheba…before David realised that he himself needed God’s forgiveness. Psalm 51 was David’s prayer of repentance. There, his attitude towards wrong doers was to help them find repentance too – Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you.” (Ps 51:13)

You cannot experience salvation unless you need saving from something. Those who ‘love your salvation’ (Ps 70:4) are those who recognise how much God has done for them, how he has rescued them, saved them. These are the ones who will rejoice and be glad in God, who will enjoy worshipping and exalting him at all times.

David saw that he himself was in need of saving. He was desperate.

Sometimes help comes by God dealing with our enemies – as David hoped. But sometimes help comes by God dealing with us – teaching us his way of forgiveness. And sometimes that may be why there seems to be a delay – because God needs us to get our salvation his way.

If you want a resolution to a problem, submission to God’s ways brings the best outcome. Seek him, (v4) then you may enjoy the freedom to rejoice and be glad, and say, “Let God be exalted!”Psalm 70 1-4

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What to do in scary moments – Psalm 69

I remember a very scary moment as a child. I’d walked out some distance across the wide sands towards the sea, then followed the shoreline for a while. There was a puddly stretch of sand between me and the others, who had continued in the same direction, but more inland. I decided it was not so deep, that I would paddle across it. A few steps in, and I realised I was in quick sand, already down to my knees. I must have read the right books, because I turned and flattened my whole body down across the surface of the watery sand, and by redistributing my weight, I was able to pull my legs out and crawl to safety – and then had to take the long way back round the water!

I was shaken enough from that experience – but I can’t imagine what it would be like to sink down to my neck in a mire. Yet that is where David felt himself to be in writing Psalm 69. Far beyond the point of being able to flatten and save himself, calling out to the only one who could rescue him. Almost beyond hope, overwhelmed by his enemies circling around him. Almost, but not. I love verse 13 – “…in your great love, O God, answer me with your sure salvation.”  God’s salvation is sure, rock solid beneath our feet.

But do you know what can undermine that? Self-pity. Feeling sorry for yourself in times of difficulty is the one thing that prevents God from helping us, because it’s a lack of trust. I’m sure David had his wobbly moments, but he knew where to run when the going got rough. V29 “I am in pain and distress; may your salvation, O God, protect me.” And that is why the Psalm has a happy ending – why David was able to praise God in and through the difficulties, and trust that a place of peace was  waiting with his name on it.

Psalm 69:1-4Psalm 69:4-15Psalm 69:15-28Psalm 69:29-36

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See the power, not the problem – Psalm 68

Thinking back to that day, when he was just a lad. What a day that was! A pivotal moment…life would never be the same again. He’d been so sure. So shocked, first, that not one of all those hardened warriors was chafing to stand up and finish off that arrogant heathen. Then determined that he at least, young as he was, would stand and fight for God, for Israel, for his king. One stone and a prayer. That’s all it had taken. Goliath was felled, the entire Philistine enemy scattered.

Now, an older man, having faced many foes, fought many battles, he was still sure. In writing Psalm 68, David was declaring the source of his confidence. When God is with you and for you, his power and strength are enough. Beyond and beyond enough…the enemy melts like wax, dissipates like smoke, flees in terror. Who can begin to guess the immensity of God’s army? Who can hold back from singing  his praise, proclaiming “the power of God, whose majesty is over Israel, whose power is in the skies”?

That certain knowledge that God ‘gives power and strength to his people’ was the bedrock of David’s life and kingship, for all that it was fraught with countless unenviable challenges. This was the wellspring of a heart overflowing with praise, worship and adoration.

That assurance is available, to us, now. It is yours for the asking. Call on God. He has the power to save, the authority to cause your enemies to be scattered, whatever shape they take, and however numerous they are. See the power, not the problem. And prepare to rejoice!

Psalm 68:1-4Psalm 68:5-16Psalm 68:17-27Psalm 68:28-35

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