Monday, June 29, 2009

Numbering our Days

Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90: 12).

I’ve been numbering my days lately. Maybe you have too. I’m not talking about something morbid or morose. The kind of numbering I’ve been doing, the kind that the Psalmist speaks of, isn’t done with a calendar. It has little to do with measuring time and more to do with entering into it, sensing how it moves and pondering what it means. That’s what I’ve been doing, especially since Thursday.

On Thursday I did some day numbering as I called my parents to wish them a happy 49th anniversary. My Mom and Dad both expressed the kind of disbelief you feel when a number that sounds so long feels so short. I’m beginning to know what they mean.

On Thursday I did some day numbering as I drove with Marnie to North Carolina to retrieve our children from three weeks of camp. When we had dropped them off twenty days earlier I was apprehensive about a three week camp experience. It sounded like a very long time for my kids to be away. It wasn’t. Just as you begin to really adapt to a child-free home, it’s time for the camp counselors to give them back to you. “Didn’t we just drive up here?”

On Thursday, making our way up I-85, we listened to constant news reports about Farrah Fawcett. I did a little day numbering, remembering the year when “Charlie’s Angels” was the big new show of the fall television season. I was 14 years old. The home of a Baptist pastor didn’t allow wall space for the iconic poster – but I knew exactly what it looked like. News of her death prompted some day numbering for much of the nation.

And then at dinner on Thursday, dining on southwestern cuisine in Black Mountain, I saw the caption at the bottom of the flat screen TV on the restaurant wall. Michael Jackson had died. Enough is being said about that, and will be for weeks to come. But I can’t hear anything from the Thriller album without being taken back to college. And long before college, there was a Saturday morning cartoon called the “Jackson 5.” More day numbering.

The Psalmist speaks of numbering our days within the context of prayer, a petition spoken to God. The request asks God to “teach us” to number our days. We don’t do this naturally. We need help. Day numbering is a learned behavior.

Usually the help we get comes to us as some kind of reminder that days have a limit. The reminder need not be a tragedy, but somehow we need to be faced with the truth that our days do not stretch our before us in infinite supply. It doesn’t matter how well you eat and how often you work out. There’s a limit to our days. The hard part is facing the limit with honesty and courage. This is how we number our days. It’s has little to do with counting.

Some refuse to number their days because it makes them fearful and anxious. Others refuse to number their days because they regard that kind of thing as depressing or sad. According to the Psalm, both of those reactions are mistaken. In the Psalm, numbering our days makes us neither anxious nor depressed. It makes us wise.

Those who “gain a heart of wisdom” are those who have also gained clarity about what life is for. Every single day comes to us as a gift, and what we do with every day is determined by the giver. To number our days doesn’t diminish life, it enhances it.

What life events have taught you how to number your days? How will you live this one?

Teach us to number our days, O Lord, and make us wise in the learning. Guard us from the fear and sadness that grasps at time but fails to live. Make us bold and glad in our living, trusting you for every day, honoring you in the way we live. Grant us a heart of wisdom we pray, Amen.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Deep Clean

[This post originally appeared in slightly different form in October 2005]

Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow (Psalm 51:7).

5:40 a.m. No lights on upstairs. Cup of coffee in one hand, computer tucked under my other arm. Conditions ripe for some kind of disaster.

I should have never tried to walk back to my study without a free hand to grope for the wall and a light switch. I make this walk every morning at roughly the same time. The cup of coffee is a constant too – but not the computer. The trek to the study leads through the guest bedroom, the very room my wife had diligently prepared for friends who would soon arrive for a weekend visit. Everything in the room was ready, including the white bed cover, now freed of the laundry stack that typically concealed (and protected) it.

The darkness was too black to navigate without some help, whether from light or from the slight sweeping motion of my outstretched arm. My plan was simple. I would place my computer on the bed and turn on a light. I moved over toward the bed to put my computer down. At this point I’m not sure where the plan went wrong, simple as it was. As I placed my computer on the bed I heard in the darkness the sound of coffee dribbling on the laundry free white bed cover.

Any early sluggishness of the blood flow in my veins disappeared with the help of a sudden adrenaline surge. The fact that my wife would not be up for nearly an hour gave me plenty of time to do some crisis management. I really have no idea what to do to a coffee stain on a white bedspread. I got a wet towel and did the best I could – which actually turned out to be a decent dissipation, if not removal, of the stain.

In fact, our guests might have never noticed the stain on the bedspread. My efforts at getting rid of it had not been entirely successful, but you wouldn’t see it unless you knew where to look. But I can see it. I know where to look.


I grew up singing gospel hymns that pictured sin as a stain and the blood of Jesus as the cleansing agent. One of the more rousing hymns asked “what can wash away my sin?” Answer: “Nothing but the blood of Jesus” (with gusto!). The blood hymns seem to have fallen out of favor these days. Our loss.

It may seem silly or even banal, my early morning coffee-spill crisis. But I came away from that little crisis with a fresh sense of what those hymn writers were talking about and what preachers of a bygone era so eloquently and passionately conveyed from their pulpits.

I recognized that the real stain of sin isn’t visible. The real ugliness of what sin leaves behind is something inward. I further recognized that the physical stain can be disguised and hidden – and so can the internal turmoil. The visible mess is nicely doctored up, and the internal is simply out of view. No one would know anything about it unless they knew exactly where to look.

But I know exactly where to look, and that’s the problem.

Here’s where the good news comes. This is what made hymn writers sing and caused preachers to raise their voices. The blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin (1 John 1:7). Psalm 51 beautifully anticipates what Jesus did on the cross.

I know that there will be other spills, missteps, faulty moves, careless acts. But a spill can always be trumped by a flood. As one old hymn says, “sinners plunged beneath that flood loose all their guilty stains.” Thanks be to God.

Lord Jesus, today we would be done with guilt and all the baggage we carry around because of it. We let it go, not because we know better or because we’ve determined to do better – but because in your death you did everything that needed to be done to make clean, white as snow. Amen.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Imperatives

Cleanse me with hyssop and I will be clean; wash me and I will be whiter than snow (Psalm 51: 7).

If you’re a parent or if you work with children in any way, you are familiar with a form of speech known as the imperative verb. Used in a variety of contexts, imperatives crop up with notable regularity when children are around.

You may have never actually heard the phrase “imperative verb” and you certainly don’t use the phrase itself when speaking. As for me, I use imperatives all the time but I never say to my kids “Ok . . . I’m about to start using imperatives” or “don’t make pull out the imperative verbs.” That kind of advertising has a way of dulling the impact of your words.

Imperatives are usually rapid-fire words: go to bed, eat your broccoli, stop whining, clean your room, get out of the pool, keep your hands to yourself. The possibilities are endless. I’m not aware of any linguistic research on the topic, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find that imperatives constitute an overwhelming majority of the words spoken by people over the age of 30 to people under the age of 12.

As you can tell, imperatives have the force of a command. The gist of any imperative verb is “do this, do that, don’t do this, don’t do that.” For that reason, it is remarkable that in the Psalms the imperative is used when people speak to God.

Time and time again in the Psalms words that have the feel of a command are offered as prayer. But in the Psalms the imperative takes on a different meaning, a slightly different feel. The Psalmists aren’t issuing orders to God, they are making a request. The imperative, when spoken as prayer, becomes an urgent desperate plea for help.


The heart of Psalm 51 is made up of a series of imperative verbs addressed to God.[1] This isn’t what we might expect. We can understand it if those who are weighed down with a sense of their guilt hide from God or speak to God tentatively. But here the guilty one speaks to God boldly and directly. No hiding. No holding back.

What we need in our guilt is stated bluntly, over and over: blot out, wash, cleanse, hide, create, renew, restore, save me. All imperatives – but not spoken as orders to the almighty. The words are spoken as cries for help.

When we make confession we are not simply talking about ourselves. While we tell the truth about who we are, we are not focused on our own failures and shortcomings. In confession we also make requests of God. That’s a part of what it means to recognize our need of forgiveness. The imperative acknowledges that we need God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, and often our need is expressed with urgency: forgive me, help me, make me right, restore me, cleanse me.

How do we deal with our guilt and our guilt feelings? How do we move beyond it, keep it from suffocating our spirit and numbing the conscience? The short answer is we don’t. We can’t. What we need must be done for us, given to us from some source outside of ourselves and our good intentions. The good news is that God listens to imperatives; God is always ready to hear our requests and give us what we need.

What are the imperatives that you’re speaking to God today?

We give you thanks, O God, for the way you hear our most urgent pleas for help. We’re thankful that we can come before you boldly and speak to you honestly. Above all we are thankful that you willingly do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. You alone are our hope and help when guilt distances us from you. Draw us near in these moments of prayer, through Christ our Lord. Amen.


[1] For this helpful insight I am indebted to Walter Brueggemann’s exposition in The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Augsburg Publishing House, 1984).

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Truth about Us

For I know my transgressions . . . (Psalm 51:3)

Some said he had married her to make an honest woman of her. A decent and honest gesture in the wake of so much that was indecent and dishonest: the affair, the pregnancy, the attempted cover-up, the conveniently timed death of her husband in battle.

David loved Bathsheba. Loved her from the moment he saw her, even if that moment was one in which he should have never been looking to begin with. Drunk with his own power David determined to do more than look. He “sent messengers to get her” (2 Samuel 11:4). This act wreaked havoc with the life of a woman and eventually destroyed the life of her husband.

David knew this. Though he loved Bathsheba, he lived every day with the reality of what he had done. The life he had made for himself and the life he had taken from another. His marriage had nothing to do with making an honest woman of Bathsheba. What David yearned to do was make an honest man of himself. For this he needed help.

Enter Nathan the prophet. Nathan created a parable and told it to the King. A very wealthy man had thrown a dinner party for his rich friends by stealing a cherished lamb from a poor neighbor. David was outraged. “The man who did this deserves to die” (2 Samuel 12:5). Nathan made his point with a simple reply. “You are the man.”

At this David finally told the truth about himself. Broken by the prophet’s words, David unburdened his soul with words of confession that continue to be used by people of faith nearly every week.


Psalm 51 is one of the psalms that have been connected to a specific story. In the history of our own nation, the “Star Spangled Banner” is a song that we connect directly to Francis Scott Key’s observations of the bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814. The story is foundational to the song and the song gives a deeper meaning to the story.

In the life of Israel, the story of David and Bathsheba gave texture to the prayer-poetry of Psalm 51. And today, the Holy Spirit uses the prayer-poetry of Psalm 51 to shed light on the details of our own stories. The Psalm helps us tell the truth about ourselves. That’s what confession is all about.

This week we will spend some time pondering some things that we typically work hard to avoid. We’ll meditate on Psalm 51 and think about the nature of guilt, the power of confession and the reality of grace. Our aim is to understand how these things work in our own varied stories.

The point of all of this is not dwell on what we euphemistically call “our mistakes.” The focus of Psalm 51 is actually not on a particular act or behavior or bad choice. The focus of the Psalm is not on something we’ve done but on who we are. To pray Psalm 51 is to recognize that sin is real and that is goes deep. It’s a condition, not a mistake.

Most of what we hear in our culture today runs directly counter to the message of Psalm 51. This Psalm is not for the faint of heart. We’ll be learning to tell the truth about ourselves this week, gradually making our way to the good news of grace and forgiveness. That’s where confession always takes us.

When you talk to God is confession regularly a part of that conversation?

Merciful God, be our help and guide in these days as we seek to deal honestly with you about who we are. Make us deeply aware of your holiness and not just our sin. Lead us closer each day to the joy that comes in knowing the power of your grace in our lives, we pray. Amen.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Chosen Wait

“I wait for you, O Lord” (Psalm 38:15).

Sometimes we wait because we don’t have a choice.

A flight is cancelled. The Doctor can’t see you until late next week. The person who put you on hold has apparently forgotten that you exist. All lanes are closed and you just missed your last chance to exit. Sometimes the waiting we do is entirely out of our hands.

But there are times when we wait because we choose to wait. This is a different kind of waiting. Sometimes we look to God in our waiting because there’s nothing else for us to do. And then there are times when we wait because we have looked to God and sense that this is exactly what God would have us do.

Consider John Bunyan. There was a period in the history of the English church that outlawed preaching by anyone not properly ordained by the Anglican Church. Bunyan was a non-conformist (think Baptist) preacher. For this he was placed in prison in 1660. He was the father of four young children, one of whom had been born blind.

Bunyan could have easily secured his own release from prison and retuned to his family. All he needed to do was sign a sworn statement that he would no longer preach. Bunyan refused, and for his refusal he remained in prison for twelve years. In other words, he chose waiting. Eventually in 1672 the laws in England were changed by the Declaration of Religious Indulgence and Bunyan was released from prison. He was soon made pastor of the church in Bedford.

What if John Bunyan had refused to wait? What if he had jumped at the first chance to get out of jail and get home to his children? It is hard to imagine what sustained him for those twelve years, but this much seems clear. If Bunyan had renounced his calling in order to secure his freedom, something would have been lost. Is it possible that the man who later penned Pilgrim’s Progress was who he was because he chose to wait it out for twelve years? It has been said that Pilgrim’s Progress has about it “the fragrance of affliction.” Such cannot be true when affliction and waiting are carefully avoided.

Waiting can be hard on us. Choosing to wait can be even harder.

It is hard to wait when you are out of work and a job is offered that doesn’t seem like it will bring out your professional best. It’s hard to wait when a relationship comes along that seems good in so many ways and yet not quite right. It’s hard to wait when prices have never been so low.

But if we refuse to wait we just might end up doing work we hate. We might end up giving ourselves to someone who doesn’t truly love us. We might end up with more debt, incurred by a low price that we still couldn’t afford.

“I wait for you, O Lord” is not a statement of resignation. The words carry intent. The waiting is embraced, chosen. Sometimes we wait not because we have to but because we choose to. Waiting might not be the only thing we can do. It just might be the best thing we can do.

Will this day offer you a chance to wait because you’ve chosen to?

I wait for you, O Lord. Not because I can do nothing else, but because I trust you to do what is necessary in all that concerns me. Guard me from rushing ahead of you today. Keep me from choosing what feels easy and convenient. Give me strength to embrace waiting and allow me to see the wonder of your works, works that only you can do in my life and in this world. Amen

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Holding On 'til Morning

My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning (Psalm 130:6).

I’ve never been a night watchman, but I have worked the midnight shift. Somehow Baylor Hospital in Dallas felt like a different place between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. I was no stranger to those halls, usually doing my work there during normal business hours. But from time to time I was given the midnight shift. A hospital can be a very lonely place in the deep darkness of night and in the hours of early morning before dawn. I was always ready for the midnight shift to end.

It’s a peculiar time to work because the work doesn’t feel like work. Patients usually don’t want the Chaplain to drop by for a little sit-down at 2:30 a.m. There isn’t actually much to do. At Baylor the Chaplains had a room to use during the midnight shift. It had a bed and a TV – but you could never truly rest.

There wasn’t much to do, but you were never truly at rest. That’s the nature of night-time waiting. The waiting seasons of life are usually not busy seasons. Sometimes we busy ourselves in order to forget that we are in fact waiting, but it’s a fabricated busy-ness. And at the same time, waiting seasons are rarely peaceful. We may be still, but not at peace. We’re on edge, anticipating something, even if we’re not sure what it is.

Psalm 130 gives us the picture of a watchman, standing his post, waiting for daylight. This is how we wait on God. Our soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning.

The watchman has been at work standing and pacing. There isn’t much to do – but the act of keeping watch will not allow a moment of rest or inattention. Watchmen listen and peer into darkness, every sound a potential threat. Waiting. Tense.

And then morning comes. Things look differently in the light of day.

Maybe one of the most difficult aspects of this night-time waiting is the loneliness and the isolation. In most places where people work the midnight shift, they work in buildings that are largely empty. Then morning comes and life returns.

It may be that the morning for which we wait will not come when the sun rises. But just as the earth moves and daylight eventually penetrates darkness, the morning that ends our waiting will come. Our God acts on behalf of those who wait for him (Isaiah 64:4).

Can you recall a difficult night that made you glad to see the light of morning?

Let your light break into my life today, O God. Sometimes in my night-time waiting I imagine threats that don’t exist. Grant me light to see things as they truly are. Strengthen my faith, knowing that you will act on behalf of those who wait on you. Amen.

Monday, June 08, 2009


Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord (Psalm 27:14).

I’ve been waiting on my car for an hour. Getting tires put on your car shouldn’t take too long once the job actually begins. The man behind the desk, speaking like we’d been friends forever, assured me that they’d have me ready to go in no time. Great. I can wait.

I’ve been trying to get some work done, a task made nearly impossible by the background bickering coming from the courtroom reality shows. Judge Wopner and “The People’s Court” used to be the only act in town. Now those shows are a dime a dozen during daytime TV and most of them have very little to do with the law.

Now, having waited for an hour, the friendly man behind the desk has just explained that two of the tires are en route from the warehouse. I wish they’d told me that an hour ago. Now I’m here for another hour at least. I’m writing a devotional, but I’m not feeling too devotional myself.

A while ago I was willing to wait. The waiting didn’t seem like such a big deal. I’m aware of the fact that I was at peace with the whole waiting thing when two things were true. First, I felt like something productive was being done. Second, I had a general idea of when my waiting would end. Now it seems like nothing is being done, and I’m not sure when I’ll get out of here. This kind of waiting is hard to take.


Throughout the Psalms we find words of prayer uttered by people who knew what it was like to wait. Very often their waiting is more than mere inconvenience. It is anguish and confusion. This kind of waiting isn’t measured by the clock or the calendar as if simply marking time. The Psalms speak of waiting on the Lord.

Waiting can raise troubling questions about the presence and purposes of God. We can tolerate waiting when we know that something is happening and that at some point our waiting will come to an end. But we don’t always have these assurances.

There are sick people who are waiting on a cure. There are single people who are waiting and looking for love. There are foster children waiting to be adopted. There are would-be parents waiting to adopt. There are unemployed people waiting for a job offer. All of these experiences of waiting touch us at a level deeper than the passing of time. We begin to wonder what God is doing and why God doesn’t seem to be doing it with more urgency.

Even our minor inconveniences, like waiting on a car or sitting in traffic, can be spiritually instructive. To wait means to be taken out of the action, not in charge of the day’s agenda. Waiting shows us what’s true all the time. We’re not at the center of the universe.

This week we’ll spend a few days thinking and praying about our waiting. The prayers of a waiting people have much to tell us about what it means to wait well.

What are you waiting on today?

In our waiting, O Lord, we are often slow to pray. We complain, we worry, we doubt. Use the ordinary delays of this day as a way to teach us what it means to wait. Turn our attention to you as we turn loose of our tendency to manage every moment. We thank you for the gift of this day and place back in your hands. Amen.

Saturday, June 06, 2009


Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous (Psalm 1:5).

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).

As a young law student Martin Luther had been caught in a thunderstorm and knocked to the ground by lightening. In fear he made a vow to become a monk, a decision that didn’t go over so well with his father. In the monastery Luther embarked on a life of trying to please God: doing good so that God would show favor. Becoming a monk was the sure-fire way to do that, and the rigors of the monastery shaped Luther’s understanding of righteousness.

Luther would later admit that he hated the word “righteousness.” It stuck in his throat and weighed heavy on his soul. Righteousness was something that God commanded us to do, and Luther knew he couldn’t do it. He never seemed to measure up or get it right. The word represented a command that could not be kept.

Having been assigned by his superiors to the role of Bible teacher, Luther was working through the text of Romans when he came up against the idea of righteousness and wrestled with it Jacob-like, refusing to let go until the word yielded a blessing. The blessing came, and it was huge. Luther came to see that righteousness isn’t something we do. Righteousness is something God gives to us.


One of the ways that Psalm 1 contrasts the wicked and the righteous has to do with judgment. “The wicked will not stand in the judgment” (Psalm 1:5). By implication, the righteous will do just fine when judgment happens. That’s an embarrassing concept for many people of faith. The idea of a judging God seems like a hold-over from some bygone era, archaic and even a little barbaric.

But the Psalm is clear. There will be a sorting out, a judgment that separates the wicked and the righteous. The “way” we choose will lead to a particular destination. Walter Brueggemann rightly observes that “the connection between devotion and destiny is not negotiable.”[1]

This reality forces us to grapple as Luther did with the nature of righteousness and the “way” of the righteous. Do some stand in the judgment because they managed to do better or do more than others? Is judgment the final grade given for conduct? Are the righteous those who make nice and do well while the wicked screw up and act up? If that’s the case, Luther saw correctly that we’re all in big trouble. None of us can stand in the judgment based on high performance standards.

Long after Psalm 1 was composed and included in Israel’s public worship, Jesus of Nazareth made use of the core image of “the way.” Jesus told his followers that he was the way, the truth and the life. The way of the righteous isn’t a life management program. The way is a person. The way is Jesus. He alone is our righteousness. He is our only hope for standing confidently on the Day of Judgment.

To choose “the way” that is blessed means turning to the one who blesses.

Lord Jesus, you are our only hope. You are our righteousness. You call us to follow you and walk in your way. By the power of your Spirit, help us to respond to that call and embrace your way of life. Amen.
[1] Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, p. 39.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Instructions

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked . . . His delight is in the Law of the Lord and on his Law he meditates day and night (Psalm 1:1,2).

Marnie and I were painting our basement last week – a project that started out as a touch-up job and then blossomed into a full blown face-lift. More than once we were interrupted in our work by our two children who wanted to help paint. My first answer was a firm, “stay out of here until we finish.”

After a while I gave in - but I didn’t turn them loose with the paint and the brush. I stood next to them and gave instruction. What made the experience pleasant was not the quality of their work, but the simple fact that they listened to me. They received my instruction. That their interest in the work was short lived and their painting was less than perfect didn’t bother me at all.

The word for “Law” in Psalm 1:2 is a word that means “instruction.” God’s law is more than rules that tell us to do one thing and not do another. God’s law is God’s instruction. The Law is God’s “way” of living. It is direction and guidance and help. A righteous person doesn’t simply try to do what God instructs. A righteous person delights in the instruction. That’s the “way” of life that stands in sharp contrast to the worthless way of the wicked.

But that’s the hard part. How do we delight in God’s instruction?


We are peculiar creatures when it comes to how we regard and use instructions. Some of us ignore the instructions and dive right in to whatever the project might be. We are convinced we can figure it out as we go. Sometimes we do. At other times we make such a mess of the whole thing that we are forced to go back and consult the instructions, but we do so reluctantly and with wounded pride.

Others of us try to master the instructions thoroughly before we take anything out of the box. We sit patiently with the manual, reading every section, occasionally taking stock of the various parts and pieces as we consult the diagrams, checking to make sure we have the necessary tools. Errors are to be avoided at all costs. Messes are intolerable. We want to master the instructions before we attempt the task.

Perhaps the best way to use the instructions is to execute the task, allowing the instructions to guide us along the way. I’d like to suggest that this gives us a way to understand what it means to “meditate on the Law day and night.” The Hebrew verb carries the meaning of “chew on.” It’s what a dog does with a bone, a playful gnawing at it.[1]

Maybe we meditate as we allow the instruction to enter into a dialog with real life. We live each day and in our living we ponder and consult what God has said. The living and the instruction are brought into an on-going conversation. We don’t ignore the instructions as we do the best we can, and we don’t master the instructions before we start living. We simply wake up each day and live, and as we do so we listen to the instruction God has given.

This kind of meditation is what it means to “delight in the Law of the Lord.” Delight comes as we mingle practice and pondering, living and listening. One need not live a perfect life to live a blessed life. To choose the “way” of the righteous means to be open and receptive to instruction. A blessed life is one in which it is hard to tell the difference between the living and the listening.

What kinds of things do you “delight” in? How will you listen as you live this day?

May the words I have read, O Lord, become real in the living of this day. Teach me to delight in your word. Help me to live this day with a listening heart, ready to receive your instruction, willing to do as you say. Amen.


[1] See Eugene H. Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, page 26.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Like Chaff

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked . . . they are like chaff that the wind blows away (Psalm 1:1, 4).

Chaff: 1. the seed covering and other debris separated from the seed in threshing grain. 2: something comparatively worthless.


The same drama is played out every fall in late October or mid November. What was lush and green and gave shade to my yard in the summer has been browning and shriveling for weeks. The slow trickle of leaves to the ground has accelerated at times to a shower. The driveway is entirely covered, not a square inch of concrete to be seen. I’ve put off taking rake in hand for as long as I possibly can. Time to gather leaves.

For me, this is a full Saturday’s worth of work. We’re talking hours of labor. And for a short while, it is worth it. It is good to see the yard again and be able to tell where the edge of the driveway is. But inevitably, as soon as my day of labor is ending and I’m enjoying the benefits of my work, the wind will blow . . . and blow . . . and blow again.

Sometimes the wind blows when I’ve gathered a pile of leaves. What I’ve carefully gathered in a nice circular heap is diminished and scattered by a single gust. Most often, after all the piles have been picked up and bagged, the wind will blow hard and more leaves will rain from above me and begin to clutter the areas I just worked so hard to clear.

I’ve not had much experience with the harvesting or threshing of grain. But I have had some experience raking leaves, and I’ve seen the wind blow and do to my leaves what it does to chaff. At the heart of the image being used in Psalm 1 is worthlessness. That’s what a wicked life leads to.


A wicked life is a way of living that is set in counter-direction to God’s way. Sometimes wickedness is mean and violent, characterized by hatred of what is good and disregard for what is right. Wicked can be a synonym for evil.

But this is not always so. Quite often a wicked life can appear to be perfectly polite and decent. But there’s no God in it. This means that at the end of the day a wicked life lacks weight. It doesn’t amount to much. It comes to nothing, blown away like chaff. A wicked life is a life of fruitless energy, a life that works hard to clear ground only to see a deluge of leaves falling to cover it again. Wickedness is life worthless and wasted.

A wicked person is not simply someone who does bad things, but someone who does things that lack lasting value, things that don’t matter. Of course this begs the question: where does worth come from? We’ll take a look at that tomorrow.

Gracious God, I want my life to have weight. I want the things I do to matter and make a difference. Help me to live this way today, knowing that even small part of this day can be weighty and worthy with your help and presence. Amen.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

This Way or That

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish (Psalm 1: 6).

I changed my major after the fall semester of my sophomore year. I’m not sure what did me in as a well intentioned pre-med biology major. It might have been the calculus and my growing realization that I hated math. It might have been the chemistry and the fact that chemistry involved a significant amount of math. It might have been the pending doom I sensed as I anticipated physics and yet more math.

I declared a major in English.

This wasn’t an arbitrary decision. While I was discovering my distaste and ineptitude for math, I found that I liked reading short stories and novels and poems. I liked writing papers abut them and what they meant or what the author might have intended them to mean.

When you do calculus and chemistry and physics, you are expected to come up with a right answer. Interpretive margins are hard to come by in these disciplines. But a poem is different. Poems and stories are full of ambiguities, shades of meaning, varied interpretive possibilities. The mathematician finds pleasure in solving the problem and getting the right answer. The poet delights ambiguities and tensions.

I find that my own fondness for ambiguities shapes how I understand the life of faith. I admire people with firm and clear convictions, but I resist those whose convictions are formulaic, black and white, defined with precision. Life doesn’t come to us as “this or that.” Life is this and that and possibly this with the chance of that too. Anyone who lives honestly will eventually have to admit, “It’s not that simple.”


The Psalms are poetry, and as such they are full of tension and ambiguity, metaphor and word picture. But in the very first Psalm, we get precision, simplicity, this or that. Once you start the life of faith, the complexities are many. But getting started in that way is simple.

Psalm 1 confronts us with a decision about how we will live our lives. “The way” is mentioned in the first verse of the Psalm and in the last. “The way” presents us with a choice. We can choose a way that is righteous. We can choose a way that is wicked.

It’s that simple. There are two ways. The Hebrew mind saw with precision that life can be righteous or wicked, wise or foolish. Ambiguities will come later, but the first order of business has to do with choosing “the way” that will define the direction of your life.

And here’s the good news about the way: It’s never too late to do a course correction. Wicked ways can be stopped and done with. Foolish ways can be redeemed. Every day is a chance for you to choose “the way” you will live. You choose a way, whether you intend to or not. Not to choose is to choose. It’s that simple, this way or that.

What way will you choose today?

The choice is simple, O Lord, but rarely easy. I want to choose a way of life that brings me closer to you each day. I want the direction of my life to be in keeping with your will. I want my way to mirror your way. I do not always choose this kind of life. Help me to choose it today, I pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Le Tour

I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live (Psalm 104:33).

I was twenty-seven years old when I finally faced the truth. I would never be a runner.

I had tried. More than once I purchased the shoes, confident that decent gear was what I needed. More than once I hit the streets or the track and chased that elusive picture of myself: sleek and trim . . . almost skinny . . . perfect blood pressure, a well conditioned heart and not a fleck of gunk to be found in my arteries. I ran after that picture of what my life could be, or at least what my body could be. What I ended up with was back pain. I really didn’t enjoy it at all. Better said, I disliked it immensely.

And so, having failed on my feet I turned to wheels. Twenty years ago this summer I purchased a bike. I still have that bike. It hangs relic-like from the ceiling of my garage. By today’s standards my bike is to cyclists what a slide rule is to NASA engineers. Twenty years ago it was a respectable bike and, most importantly, it was all I could afford. What I could never do by running I hoped to do by cycling. The fact that the bike hangs on a ceiling hook these days may be a clue as to the depth of my commitment, but that’s another story for another time.

With the purchase of my bike I discovered cycling as a sport, especially the main event that unfolds over a three week period every July: the Tour de France. The Tour de France is probably the only cycling event that gets media attention in America. The race takes a slightly different course each year around the country of France, covering roughly 2000 miles. A 2006 article in the New York Times likened the event to running a marathon several days a week for three weeks. Runners will scoff at that, but you get the idea.

I’m not a cyclist, but I’m captured every summer by the physical demands and the competitive drama of “Le Tour.” It is fascinating in itself, as sport and high athleticism. But it is also powerful as metaphor. In ways that may be obvious, what happens on the roads of France has much to say to us about the life of faith, the daily drama that plays out on the streets of Atlanta, in homes and in airports, in the ordinary comings and goings of people like you me.

I’d like to suggest that the Psalms are to the life of faith what “Le Tour” is to cycling.

The Psalms place before us the varied and expansive terrain of life experience. The race around France is marked by long grinding stretches, grueling climbs through mountains, thrilling descents at high speed, individual time trials where a single rider races the clock. You live the same kind of stages every day: The long daily grind, the uphill climb when everything seems to be working against you, the thrill of coasting effortlessly with ease and excitement, pressure filled days when you race the clock and barely get it all done.

This summer we will embark on the Tour de Psalms. The Psalms take us though every stage, every experience of life, and give us words for placing our lives before God. Unlike the great race in France, our journey will be leisurely. We may linger with one Psalm for several days. We may focus on an entire Psalm one day and then meditate on a single verse or phrase the next.

Along the way we will learn more about prayer and how to pray what we live. The Tour de Psalms will truly be the ride of your life. I hope you’ll take time every day to do some training – and then hit the road and embrace the journey to which God has called you.

What kind of terrain characterizes your life journey today?

Gracious God, I want to praise you with all of my life. I want to place before you all of my days, whatever they bring: Every joy and every challenge, every plan and every surprise, every laugh and every tear, every question and every complaint. In the weeks ahead use the Psalms in my life and teach me how to live this way, I pray. Amen.