All posts by ashleymcarmichael

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: (My journey through Psalms 139)

I remember the first time I heard the song “Every Breath You Take” by Sting and the Police. The tune is so incredibly familiar it is easy to start singing and not even realize the words you are saying, but I’ve always been fascinated by words, so halfway through the song, I was kind of like…what on Earth am I singing about. This is not what love is. Is it?

The idea of one person claiming that ‘Oh can’t you see, you belong to me,” is a little disconcerting, to say the least. Even in a committed relationship, I personally wouldn’t want to belong to someone, which would imply that I am some sort of possession to be had. Be a part of someone, sure. Be someone’s other half, yeah I get that. Become one with someone, yes! That’s what God intended, but to belong to someone? That sounds morbidly obsessive and having them watch everything I do, now that’s downright stalker material there. Creepy.

So why, when I read Psalm 139, does this song come to mind? Maybe it is verse 7-10a, Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there, if I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there…

“Every step I take, Every move I make…Every vow I break…”

Now I am aware that Sting had no intention of writing this song to be a spiritual allegory (it’s actually, I believe about his jealous ex that he fled to the Caribbean to avoid if I’m not mistaken), but like most things if shifted into a certain perspective, I can hear God speaking through it.

Because God does watch us, not because he is obsessively jealous (although even he admits to being a jealous God when we begin worshiping anything besides him), but because we are created in his image and he loves us. Psalm 139 is a beautiful reminder of His involvement in every aspect of our lives. Because, beloved, we do belong to him, and that can be so very terrifying, but also so very comforting when we realize what his motivation is in loving us so fully and completely.

This song is not a perfect parallel by any means, but God speaks to use in wonderful and strange ways…we just have to be willing to listen when he does. 

His Love Endures Forever

His Love Endures Forever (My journey through Psalms 135-138)

Unlike most people in this world, I have been almost struck by lightning at least 3 times in my life. When I say almost I mean, it didn’t actually hit me, but it hit close enough to me that I could feel the vibrations of power and see the effects of the strike.

The first time I was hiking with my parents and sister. I was too young to really remember the details, but my mom has related the story to me. We were caught in the mountains when a summer storm rolled in unexpectedly and, though they high tailed it off the mountain with my sister and me in tow, the lightning struck around us enough to destroy some tree limbs etc.

The next time I was at Girl Scout camp and lightning struck our cabin in the middle of the night. I remember the deafening crack and the cabin shook under the pressure. When we all gathered outside part of the cabin had broken off and lay at our door.

More recently I was in a car with my best friends. It was raining so hard we decided not to continue and pulled into a grocery store parking lot. Next to us, a light pole was struck and shook so violently I thought for sure it would fall and crush us in the vehicle, but it did not–though the alarms in the bank across the street went absolutely bonkers.

To say I am leery of storms would be understating it. For a large part of my life, I remained terrified. People would talk about the beauty in the storm, but all I saw was raw uncontrollable power.

While I am still weary about storms, and probably more cautious than the average adult, I have drawn a different conclusion about these awesome events–they are beautiful, they are powerful, but they are also representative of God’s perfect, enduring love.

God’s perfect love is raw and uncontrollable by our human hands, power, and will. I’m not talking about romantic love or lust that you see in the movie where you are ‘so overcome’ by the feelings that you throw caution to the wind and make stupid mistakes. No, that is not God’s love.

God’s love strikes us, and when it does, it changes us and charges us. Sometimes it is beautiful, sometimes it feels destructive, but it is also filled with power that is unique to God and it endures, meaning it never changes. His love is constant, just like storms.

Moving on Up

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

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

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.