All posts by ashleymcarmichael

Moving on Up (My Journey Through Psalms 120-134)

I love getting an A.

I may be 32 years old, but being told that I have gotten 100% on something still makes me feel, well, proud.

Unfortunately, that is also my greatest struggle with sin–feeling as though I can do it by myself, that I can EARN a 100% with God, and forgetting life isn’t all about me.

This collection of Psalms (120-134) is a humbling reminder to me.

Named Psalms of Ascent, this collection has been the center of debate for scholars–when were they written? why were they written?–honestly, we don’t even know if they were written at the same time by different authors or collected later and assembled, but we do know that they are associated with the journey, or pilgrimage, to Jerusalem and moving up to the temple. In other words, moving closer to God. And the journey itself is clear in the written words.

While there is a lot to unpack in each individual psalm, I found a lot to work with when treating them as a group. A general progression is clear and emphasized in these poems with the use of repetition and analogy throughout.

First, we have an acknowledgment of God in Psalms 120-121; the poet(s) acknowledge the almighty power and presence of the Lord and his role in our lives. We move next into the pleas or appeals to God’s character. The plea of peace (122), followed by a plea for mercy (123), then an acknowledgment of the Lor’ds strength and favor (124), a plea for God’s goodness (125) and favor despite the hardships of life (126), and finally the joy, rest and rewards God grants to his people (127); what it ultimately boils down to is the promises of prosperity for trusting in God as his chosen people (128-129). In our next poetic phase we see repentance (130) with a recognition that we cannot achieve this, but rather it is granted through grace despite our naturally evil hearts (131). WIth a specific example of a man who sinned but still received the favor, pleasure, and promises of God (132), David’s story begins to tie all these poems together as the Psalms of Ascent end in thankfulness (1333) and praise (134) turning focus back to God and his awesome power and might. 

These Psalms outline how we should approach God, but also teach how to grow closer to him. Although we are maybe not physically ascending, spiritually we can experience growth if we follow this example. Which, I’ll be the first to admit, I can always use some help with.

First, we must always acknowledge who God really is.

Beginning our prayers with the acknowledgment of God’s awesomeness and power takes the focus off us and places it where it should always be–on God. I use to think I was the protagonist in my own life.  BUT I’M NOT! I am a minor character in God’s story, which is both humbling and restoring because it means I don’t always have to be in control of the outcome. Nor should I be. This life is not about me. It’s about Him. It always has been.

Next, we can appeal to God’s character for more purposeful lives.

This is a great supplication moment for peace, mercy, goodness, strength, and favor. BUT it’s not about YOU or ME; it’s supplication for ISREAL, aka God’s people. This is a time to focus on community and prayers for the local church and/or the church as a whole. The story STILL is not about me as an individual but about US as the bride of Christ. In helping others we grow closer to God, not in helping ourselves first.

After we focus our attention away from ourselves and our selfish needs then we can ask for forgiveness.

Amazingly, when we re-direct our focus, it highlights the many things we need to ask God to help us fix in our own hearts. We must then ask for forgiveness and accept the grace he offers us. In placing emphasis on God and other’s first, we abandon our pride and expose the places in our hearts that need work to be purified and made holy. Only then can we grow closer to God.

Finally, in the end we turn back to God, admitting to ourselves that the story has always been and will always be about Him, not us.

In reminding ourselves of the promises God has made and the promises he has fulfilled we are then able to humbly ask him for the desires of our hearts because then we will be less focused on what we get out of it and focused on the purpose of these supplications–how they can bring glory to God’s story, the only story that actually matters.

Acknowledging God, Appealing for others, Asking forgiveness and Admitting who the true protagonist is…

allows us to ascend toward him and grow both in faith and prosperity–being given, not earning, the only A+ that matters: God’s grace.

When You Stumble (My journey through Psalm 120-121

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?

What a stupid question, one may respond. Of course it makes a sound! Just because no one is there to witness it, doesn’t negate the laws of nature–if you go 90 miles an hour on the freeway and there are no cops, you were still breaking the law. You deserve a ticket.

We don’t get what we deserve, thank you Jesus. Which is why we can call on the Lord and he will answer us. By rights, much of the distress we experience is the result of sin–ours or another’s–which is a result of stepping outside of God’s good and perfect will.  Just because your sin is hidden, it doesn’t make you perfectly deserving of all good things. We get good things because of God’s blessings and forgiveness, but the tree still fell. It still made a noise. It reverberated throughout history.

Thankfully though we can lift our eyes to the hills the only place our help can come from, the Lord (121:1-2, paraphrased). And because of his graciousness he can turn that fallen tree into something really beautiful.

I had an interesting conversation with my sister last night about the paradox of God’s protection and pre-ordained will. One conclusion that we both drew was that God does not allow evil in the world. We allowed evil in the world when we made our choice to be like God and eat the forbidden fruit–and we have all made this choice at one point or another in our lives. Quit blaming Eve. Despite the fact that God does not pre-ordain this evil, he still manages to use it for his greater good. We talked about a number of different historical examples of God working out the good through the horrific evils of the world, but I have also seen this work out in my own life. As much as I would like to be, I am not perfect and I will beat myself up when I make a mistake. For days, weeks sometimes. Especially if that mistake affects others. But even so, I look back and realize that the mistakes humanized me and as a result I was able to have an influence in a place I normally wouldn’t have.

That’s what I think these psalms are getting at. 121:3 states that He will not let our foot slip.

Well, that feels untrue sometimes because I know I slip up. But what I get out of this (whether it is what we are supposed to or not, I am unsure, but I hold onto the holy spirit speaking into my soul when I am writing and studying scripture), what I feel in my heart is that God doesn’t keep us from the consequences of our sin–our slip ups–but he can work it to our own good. A promise from Romans 8:28.

Therefore even as our foot slips, God is there, watching, catching, redirecting and loving us even in the hot messes.

If we will let him.

Following the Rules (my journey through Psalms 119)

I don’t understand people who intentionally rebel against the rules.

Seriously. I don’t.

When I was in high school, my friends had curfews and had to call their parents at certain intervals to check in. Most of them had a strict rule system they were supposed to follow…sometimes they did, and sometimes they really didn’t.

As a kid, I always wondered why my parents didn’t give me the same strict guidelines, but as an adult I now (think) I know why.  I was WAY harder on myself than they ever had to be.

This is who I am.

On the Enneagram, the call it a “type 1”, the reformer (I don’t remember if I have talked about this before or not on this blog, but if I haven’t, you should really look this up. And even take the test. I am not what you would call a ‘people person’, but this institute has really helped me gain insight into others, and particularly what motivates them. In writing, it has helped me create more dynamic characters too. It’s fascinating.).  I love rules.

Psalm 119 speaks straight to that rule-loving, do-the-right-thing inner soul of mine. And I love it.

That doesn’t mean I always do the right thing. Lord knows I make a bundle of mistakes just like the next person, but my default setting is to follow these rules and be rewarded for my pains.

Get the A.

Get the recognition.

Get the appreciation.

Unfortunately, I don’t always like the fact that I do what is right and somehow that recognition and/or reward is not exactly what I expected; meanwhile, Joe Schmoe does whatever the hell he pleases and, by all appearances, is the more successful one.

What happened to righteous justice? To the natural order of things? To do what is right and be rewarded?

I’ve been learning a lot lately about obedience. I’ve never had much of a problem being obedient if I can understand why I must be obedient. Don’t touch the stove, you’ll get burned. Gotcha, I don’t want to be burned so I can follow that rule!

Like most people, I struggle to be obedient when the outcome is a little more…ambiguous. You want me to do what now? Give money to someone in need? But, what about my needs? I can’t afford to give any extra money–unless I want to eat Ramen for the next month or two.

Sometimes I’m obedient. 

Sometimes I’m selfish.

But that’s not what God wants from me, is it? He doesn’t want me just to follow the rules that keep me safe. He wants me to walk in his ways, to become less about recognition and more about recognizing others’ needs. He wants me to do WELL, not just to do RIGHT.

Do well, the right thing, and you will be accepted.

Not by the world, no, you may never be accepted by the world (let’s face it, Ash, you’re kind of a weirdo!), but you will be accepted by God. If this were the world’s definition, doing the right thing would lead to health, wealth and popularity.

But God does not follow the ‘natural’ order of things, he is supernatural and his definition is pretty eccentric: do the right thing and be accepted could lead, well, anywhere he needs you to be.

And it will be amazing.

 

The Paradox of God’s Character (my journey through Psalms 110-118)

True honesty is a myth among the human race. As the boy Macduff observes to his mother in Macbeth:

And must they all be hanged that swear and lie? […] Who should hang them? […] Then the liars and swearers are fools, for there are liars and swearers enough to beat the honest men and hang up them. (Act 4 scene 2)

And he’s right. Honesty is out of fashion and has been since the fall of Eden. So it is no wonder that we sometimes judge God by our human standards. Even though we are made in the image of God, he is not human (he chose to become human as Jesus, but even so he retained his divinity), which means his character is not like that of the liars and swearers of Earth.

I think C. S. Lewis expresses the paradox of God’s character best in the novel The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe when the children ask if Aslan (an allegorical representation of God) is safe, Mr. Bever responds with:

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

This, paired with the psalms, leads me to draw a few conclusions about God that prove he is not hopelessly flawed like the human race.

God is unchanging

Humans have a hard time with change. Some people love it, but the vast majority of us have a hard time adjusting to any kind of change. Sure, it helps us grow and keeps us from being bored out of our minds, so change can be good, but adjusting to it is always a challenge. I wonder if this is because our hearts yearn for the one we were created in the image of an unchanging, steadfast, unsafe, King.  Psalm 110:4 says that “the Lord has sworn and will not change his mind”; Psalm 117:2 reiterates this with “For great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever”;  Psalm 118 repeats over and over again that His steadfast love endures forever. And this is just here in the psalms–the rest of his word is filled with other examples of how he is unchanging. He is alpha and omega–the same today, yesterday and forever.

God is faithful and just

When I think about the character of God, I am constantly reminded of the Israelites’ wandering through the desert. Over and over again they complained and whined and forgot about the Lord’s provisions. Over and over again Moses spoke to God, intervening for this unfaithful grumbling. Over and over again God demonstrated his faithfulness by sticking to his chosen people, but still like any loving father, teaching them that actions have consequences–proving his justice is real. As Psalm 111:7 says, “the work of His hands are faithful and just: all precepts are trustworthy. ” And God values this kind of faithfulness in his people. Psalm 112: 5-6 asserts this: “It is well with the man who deals generously and lends; who conducts his affairs with justice. For the righteous will never be moved; he will be remembered forever.” Remembered by the original and most high judge.

God is giving

When I feel like I’ve been overlooked, or forgotten, because (just being vulnerable here) this is something I struggle with a lot. A sense of insignificance. I have to remember that God is the giver of all good things. He wants to bless his people. He wants us to walk with him, not just talk about him or fear him. Psalm 113:9 is evidence: “He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children.” Having a barren home can be…debilitating, even in our culture. And I’m not just talking about the inability to bear children, but the isolation that comes with perpetual singleness–and the way our culture seems to ask “what’s wrong with you” if you are not in a relationship by the time you are 30…or even earlier than that if you are a woman. God doesn’t see something is wrong with a woman who is ‘barren’ in any sense of the word. No. He sees an opportunity to give, to bless, and to honor this woman for her faithfulness and that is a hope that I hang on to every single day (no pun intended). Because, as Psalm 115:12-13 says: “The Lord has remembered us; he will bless us; he will bless the house of Isreal; he will bless the house of Aaron; he will bless those who fear the Lord, both the small and the great.” If I believe that God is unchanging, faithful and just then you better believe that he is one who will bless and give the most amazing gifts. Even if it’s not in the timing we might prefer.

God is not Safe.

I have been reading an excellent book by Mark Buchannan entitled Your God is too Safe. If you haven’t read it, you should start immediately. In our culture we have created this image of God–this cuddly, hang it up in the Sunday school image of a man in a white robe cuddling a lamb and smiling down at children. Sure, that may depict a fatherly image of God, but it’s not the whole picture. It neglects to consider the power of God. The mind-blowing awesomeness that is wrapped up in an all-powerful being who has no beginning and no end. Who can destroy us with one word–or heal–or create–or bless–a multifaceted triune of holiness that can’t be put in a nice little box that we take out with our Sunday best and then put away while we live the rest of our lives. The being who frightens and commands the seas and storms. Psalm 114:3-8a sums it up with “What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan that you turn back? O mountaints that ou skp like rams? O hills, like lambs? Trembel, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob who turns the rock into a pool of water…” Our God is not safe, nor should we try to make him so. But he is good, and for that we should ever be thankful.

Working through Wounds (my journey through Psalms 109)

Most days I love being a teacher. I love spending my time guiding and counseling, rebuking and encouraging because let’s face it. My job is about 10% content and 90% building relationships and mentoring teenagers. Sure, theme, plot, and grammar are important, but they mean nothing if students can’t internalize the skills that will help them succeed on an every-day Tuesday in their future lives.

But then there are those days when I am repaid all my kindness with nastiness. Where my “heart is wounded within me” (Psalm 109:22) because “wicked and deceitful mouths are open against me and encircle me with words of hate and attack me without cause” (Psalm 109:2-3). And it hurts, no it wounds me to my core.

Without giving specifics, because that’s unnecessary, I’ll just say that this psalm resonates with me right now because recently this happened. I spent several days after the incident–seriously disrespectful with no hint of apology or acknowledgment of wrong from the student or the parent– reconciling with myself how to forgive and move on rather than letting the soul wound fester.

And let me tell you, the psalmist’s pleas for justice and goldy intervention were fresh in my mind.

But so is another voice. 

A voice that whispers into my conscience that even though this kid intentionally wounded, frustrated and quite frankly ticked me off, it doesn’t negate the good God has done within and through me as a teacher.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t see this student as my enemy as David is expressing in this psalm, but I do see the enemy at work against me when I allow these incidents to infect my heart like a festering sore, which is far too easy.

No, instead I will “give great thanks to the Lord.” because he has given me much more than I deserve: a calling, a purpose, and a passion.