Psalms by the Sea

Greetings, friends! I am happy to let you know that my book, Psalms by the Sea, has just been published and is available at Amazon. This is a 30 day devotional that takes you through a journey of the psalms. I hope you will come along!

Below is a free leader’s guide for small group use that accompanies the book. You can use Psalms by the Sea as a 5-week study. I hope you enjoy it!

Psalms by the Sea Small Group Leader’s Guide

This guide is provided for groups who wish to study Psalms by the Sea together. Originally intended as a personal devotional resource, Psalms by the Sea can easily be turned into a 5-week group study by using this leader’s guide.

This book, available at Amazon, is a compilation of 30 devotionals intended to take the reader on a journey through the ancient songs of praise, lament, wisdom, trust, and thanksgiving. These five categories are not obvious in the book, but I specifically organized my writing so that it could translate into a study on these individual psalm-types. By immersing ourselves in God’s word on a daily basis, we hope to learn how to sing new songs of faith to our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. By coming together in a group every week, we can learn from one another and understand the different functions of psalm categories and what it means to worship God in every season of life. I pray that you and your group grow closer to God and one another as you take this pilgrimage together.

Every devotional contains a few reflection questions within the body of the reading. These are designed for personal use but can make great discussion starter questions. I suggest that as you read through each day, highlight those questions in your book and consider using them as “ice-breaker” openers for each class. Some of the questions in the book may feel too personal for group use, and that’s okay. You will soon discover how much self-disclosure your group can handle as you go through each week. Be prepared to share your own responses to those questions as you feel led.

Listed below are the group discussion questions for each day. Some are fun and non-threatening, and others are deep. As you spend time with your group, you will know what they will respond to. If you only ask one question and it takes off for the rest of the hour, that is great! Don’t feel pressure as the leader to ask all the personal reflection questions AND the group discussion questions for the week. I have deliberately provided more questions than you could possibly use so that you can tailor each lesson to your group. Your class is the curriculum! You are the curriculum! The Holy Spirit is definitely the curriculum! The book in your hands is just a book. You and your students will be both teachers and learners in this adventure. May God add many blessings to your journey!

Week One: Praise Hymns

Songs of praise are the most common type of psalm, as psalms were written to be part of a worship experience. When we praise God, we remind ourselves of all of God’s immeasurable blessings and provision. We offer him the adoration that he deserves and express our individual and corporate appreciation for who he is and whose we are. Praise psalms can be especially helpful in times of distress and anxiety because they remind us to look outside of our circumstance and lift up our hearts to a worthy and mighty Lord. The first six psalms (Days One through Six) are praise psalms.

Day 1 Call to Worship

Today’s devotional talks about remembering a terrible situation first thing in the morning that you forgot about your slumber. Have you ever experienced an awful moment of awakening to a tragedy? Describe what it felt like. What is your worst memory of the pandemic? Did you ever wonder if we would get though it? How did you cope?

Day 2 Secret Decoders

Our study of Psalm 145 invites us to praise God on the bad days. Do you do this? Why is it important? How can psalms and songs of praise help us when we feel broken?

Day 3 Slaying the Leviathan

Today we are reminded that God is bigger than your biggest failure, fear, or regret. Can you name a “leviathan” that made you feel trapped? What does this psalm say about God’s power? What can people do when they feel hopeless in the face of monsters that threaten to annihilate them?

Day 4 Pouring Out Speech

Psalm 19 is a beautiful song of praise to the creation and the Creator. What was your favorite image? We are challenged to be sure that the words of our mouths are pleasing to God. Are we as a people declaring the glory of heavens, or are we tearing down all that God has done? Is our social media witness in line with this psalm? How should Christians express themselves?

Day 5 The Rock

Psalm 95 declares that God is our ROCK. How do you know this? Can you give examples of a time when God’s steadfast and unmovable love made a difference in your life? Do you need the rock to cling to right now? Describe your situation.

Day 6 Hunker Down or Flee

Sometimes in life God calls us to hunker down and stay in a situation that seems impossible. Other times God urges us to flee. Can you identify points in your life when this happened? What was the result? Can you name a circumstance when you saw that God was indeed a very present help in trouble?

As you finish the first week on Praise Psalms, offer your class a moment to reflect on the importance of praising God in the storms of life. Invite them to write their own psalm of praise.

Week 2 Psalms of Lament

Sometimes you just need to vent! In psalms of lament, we see exactly that: complaining, crying out for help, expressing sorrow, and confessing sin and pain. Yet lament psalms always end with a word of praise that God is in the dark places with us. These are songs that can bring great catharsis to the soul. Days 7 through 12 are psalms of lament.

Day 7 Caught

Have you ever gotten caught red-handed? We all have. Can you describe what happened? Psalm 51 boldly states that we have all been born in guilt and sin, but God teaches us wisdom in the “most secret space.” What does this mean? How does confessing help? Can God really cleanse us white as snow?

Day 8 Waiting and Watching

Are you good at waiting? Have you ever asked God to deliver you and then you had to wait? Psalm 130 is a psalm of penitence. What does it mean to offer penitence while you wait for God’s deliverance? How can we grow to be more patient?

Day 9 Secondhand Smoke

Do you think we live in a time where it is hard to learn the truth through news and social media? Have you ever endured a situation where your enemies told lies about you? What happened? Where can we go to find truth?

Day 10 We All Fall Down

Psalm 51 is a beautiful instrument of confession and penitence, reminding us that God knows everything that we have hidden away. What kind of things do people hide in their hearts? Why is it important for people to confront things that they’ve hidden away?

Day 11 Deliverance

What are things that people need to be delivered from … can you make a list? Are you struggling with any? How can people ensnared in sin, despair, hopelessness, or deception find freedom? What can the church do to help?

Day 12 Cawfee Regulah

What is your morning routine? Share it with the group. Do you think we reach for our Bibles as often as we reach for our morning coffee? How can we make changes in our daily habits to include being in God’s word? Share your story.

As you complete the second week on Psalms of Lament, encourage your students to take a moment to write their own lament song.

Week 3 Psalms of Trust and Confidence

This week we will focus on songs that express our blessed assurance in God’s strength, provision, salvation, and abiding presence. These psalms give us a sense of confidence that no matter what is happening in the world, God is still in charge. Psalms of trust remind us that we are never alone. Days 13 through 18 are psalms of trust and confidence in God.

Day 13 Timeless

Can you recall the first time you ever heard the 23rd Psalm? Why do you think it is the most used scripture for funerals? What is your favorite image from this psalm?

Day 14 Shaking and Quaking

Can you describe the power of God in one sentence? Psalm 99 is an invitation to cry out to God when we feel powerless. Why don’t people do that? Have you ever felt run over? Describe what happened.

Day 15 Out of the Mouths of Babes

King David penned a beautiful reminder about trusting God in Psalm 8. He lists reasons why we can be confident that God takes care of all his creation. Can you make a list of why people can trust God? Do you have a story to tell about a time when you trusted God with something big and he saw you through it? Share it with your class.

Day 16 Being Known

Share the name of the person in your life who knows you best. Now describe that relationship. What conclusions can you draw about being known? What does it mean to know that God knows the word we are about to say even before it is on our tongues? Does this suggest we should think before we speak?

Day 17 Fear Not

What are people most afraid of? Are you worried about something that you can share with the group? How can people find peace in a world that lacks it? What is your understanding of being “sheltered in God’s dwelling”? (See verse 5).

Day 18 Still Waters

What is your favorite Bible translation to read? Today we read Psalm 23 for the second time. List any new insights. What does the phrase “still waters” mean to the world today? How can you be a vessel of still water to someone who needs it?

As we complete this week, ask your class to write their own psalm of trust in God.

Week Four Wisdom Psalms

Wisdom psalms offer words of insight into life’s struggles and challenges. These practical words reinforce God’s teachings and provide guidelines about our actions and behaviors. A lot of the wisdom writings focus on the contrast between righteousness and wickedness. Days 19 through 24 are wisdom psalms.

Day 19 Truly Happy

Do you believe you can ever be truly happy? What would that look like? Describe what it means to “honor the Lord.”

Day 20 You Choose

Name a time in your life when you had to make a decision that changed everything. Psalm 1 describes the “wicked.” Who are the wicked today? How can society get back on the right path toward the way of the righteous?

Day 21 Night Terrors

What disrupts your sleep? Do you struggle with night guilts? What can we do when daytime anxieties take over nighttime rest?

Day 22 The Sure Thing

Name something you thought was a sure thing that turned out to be not so sure. In the Message, Peterson talks about “God-wonders and God-thoughts.” Focusing on these things helps us trust God. Can you name some? How can you witness to someone who is struggling to trust in the Lord?

Day 23 Sleepless

What does it mean to be “fearfully and wonderfully made”? Have you ever struggled with self-esteem? What does it mean to you to know that all of God’s works (including people) are wonderful? Do we treat everyone as though they are wonderful, or only the ones who are like us?

Day 24 Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Tell about a time when you went through a hard break up. What helped you get through it? Have you ever felt jealous or betrayed? Where was God when that happened? What does the psalmist mean when he says, “Commit your way to the Lord”?

Finish your class this week by instructing your students to write a brief wisdom song of something they have learned in this study.

Week Five Thanksgiving Psalms

Thanksgiving psalms are exactly that … songs that give words of thanks, appreciation, and attribution to God for his kindness and mercy. They convey the writer’s understanding of our deep dependance on God for salvation, hope, change, and redemption. God is worthy of our thanks! These humble and humbling psalms remind us of God’s graciousness and goodness toward us in all seasons of life. Days 25 through 30 complete our study with thanksgiving psalms.

Day 25 Of Mice and Women

Psalm 94 reminds us that we are blessed when God disciplines us. Do you agree? Have you ever felt rejected by God? Can abundance and fear live in the same place? What can we do with our anxiety?

Day 26 Even to Death

Psalm 48 assures us that God is everywhere. Describe a time when you experienced God in an unusual place. What does the psalmist mean when he says that God will be our guide “even to death”? Are you afraid to die?

Day 27 Though Fire and Water

There is much debate between the idea that God brings disaster versus God allows disaster. Discuss this with your class. In either case, we know that refining fires come to change us for our good. Have you experienced this? Tell what happened. Why is refining necessary? Is God refining our world right now?

Day 28 Soul-Stirring Songs

(Note to leaders: you may want to provide hymnals for this lesson.) What is your favorite hymn? Share it with the class. Are psalms painful or healing to you? Compile a list all of the things that you are thankful for right now.

Day 29 Songs of Praise

Go around the room and fill in the blank: “I love the Lord because ____________.” Are you surprised at each other’s answers? Has there ever been a time when God did not incline his ear to his people? What does it mean to praise God in the storm?

Day 30 Loyal Love

Define the word “love.” List three things you love. Do we remember to thank God for loving us, or do we take that love for granted? Does God ever let go of us? How can you help someone who doesn’t know God’s love?

Finish your study by writing a group psalm of thanksgiving. It can be a simple list of all the things you are thankful for in the group.

Clap Your Hands

     One of the joys of raising babies is teaching them simple forms of expression. When a baby can imitate smiling, waving, and clapping, you know they are on their way toward higher forms of communication.

     I play the “clappity clap clap” game with my grandbabies and I love to sing and clap with them. They take this skill into other places, and soon learn to clap when food is presented, when a sibling is being silly, or when they simply are happy. Our youngest set of twins are almost one, and I can envision that joyful first birthday party with its colorful balloons, their first messy bites of cake, and a lot of clapping … mostly by me.

     Why don’t we clap more? Clapping is a natural response to something that feels good. We clap and shout at football games, at the end of a great theater performance, and when the bad guy gets caught in a movie, but many of us were taught that clapping and shouting in church are things we shouldn’t do.

     I think the Scriptures say otherwise. Today’s reading starts with the direction to “Clap your hands, all you people!” It could hardly be clearer than this! The psalm was written for the music leader and the sons of Korah, who were Levite priests. We can assume that this joyful song of victory was presented in the tabernacle and temple ceremonies as victories were being celebrated. Thus the people of God were invited to clap, shout, and sing in the context of worship.

Psalm 47

Clap your hands, all you people!
    Shout joyfully to God with a joyous shout!
Because the Lord Most High is awesome,
    he is the great king of the whole world.
He subdues the nations under us,
    subdues all people beneath our feet.
He chooses our inheritance for us:
    the heights of Jacob, which he loves. Selah

God has gone up with a joyous shout—
    the Lord with the blast of the ram’s horn.
Sing praises to God! Sing praises!
    Sing praises to our king! Sing praises
    because God is king of the whole world!
    Sing praises with a song of instruction!

God is king over the nations.
    God sits on his holy throne.
The leaders of all people are gathered
    with the people of Abraham’s God
    because the earth’s guardians belong to God;
        God is exalted beyond all.

     Worship should always be a joyful experience. In verses 6 and 7 the phrase “sing praise” is used five times, just so we get the point. We have so much to celebrate! God is the king over all the earth. God has subdued the nations under Israel. God sits on the holy throne and reigns from on high. Everyone and everything belongs to God.

     How easy it is to see the messianic prophecy in this psalm, and easier still to see Jesus as the fulfillment. Jesus went up with a “joyous shout” (verse 5) at his ascension and will come again to be “king over the nations” (verse 8). For this alone, we rejoice.

     I think worship should feel like a child’s first birthday party. Noise makers, hand clapping, singing, and joy should be a part of our experience whenever we gather together as God’s assembly. Every week!

     How do you worship? Do you go into a service with anticipatory joy or a sense of obligation? Do you feel the pure happiness that comes from being in God’s presence, or are you distracted by your worries as you sit down?

     We are invited to praise God with joy. God is worthy of our praise! We can’t praise enough.

Sing Praise by Michelle Robertson

Hope Wins

Today is Wednesday.

I type that with the certainty of a person who thought it was Wednesday all day yesterday. I got up, edited and published my Wednesday devotional and then suddenly remembered it was Tuesday. I went to my Tuesday staff meeting (thank God for that brief moment of clarity!) and then went to pick up my dog from the vet in the afternoon. Then at 5:00 I told my husband that it was time for our Wednesday night family ZOOM call. But it was still Tuesday.

Lest you think I was having a day-long senior moment, (a reasonable guess) I need to explain my lack of focus. On Sunday morning as I was getting ready for church, my 13 -year-old Labrador Retriever collapsed. I called some friends to help me get her in the car. I was able to check her in to an Animal Hospital, and with the very kind and knowledgeable help of Dr. Grossman, she was diagnosed with Vestibular Disease, and we brought her home late Tuesday afternoon. She is wobbly but well.

Those three days were a nightmare for me. I got a harsh reminder of what grief and anxiety feel like. From Sunday morning until she wobbled through the door yesterday, I was in physical and emotional pain. My chest and stomach actually hurt, and I could not keep my mind from going to all of the worst situations. I could not sleep, nor could I eat. Driving up the driveway knowing she would not be running to greet me at the door rendered me paralyzed to the point that I could not get out of the car for fifteen minutes that first day.

Yesterday morning, on my Wednesday/your Tuesday, I woke up to a much too quiet house and proceeded to upload my Wednesday devotional. My mind was spinning, but luckily, I had written it last week. As I worked on it, a large robin red breast perched on the railing right outside my window and sang his beautiful song to me. I stopped and watched him, thanking God for this gift of rare beauty in the midst of my emotional tsunami fog.I felt my heart lift just a tiny bit and I allowed my mind to envision bringing Georgia home and things returning to normal.

In other words, I began to feel hope.

We finally got the call that she had recovered enough to be brought home and I began to feel the deep knot unknot itself. Hope was then affirmed by spotting another red-breasted robin sitting on a hedge outside the vet’s office. God had been with me all along and these two bird sightings were like a sweet tap on the shoulder as he reminded me that he had never left me in those long hours of uncertainty.

Hope is the antidote to grief. Hope stands in the boxing ring with anxiety with its gloved fists raised and yells, “Give me your best shot.” Hope wipes out the fear of the worst thing happening. In the end, hope wins. Even if the worst thing had happened and we lost Georgia, I was reminded that thanks to the hope we have in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, I could look forward to that day of seeing her again, whole and restored. And ornery. Always ornery.

When we first got Georgia as a thirteen-week-old puppy, a vet told us that large pure bred dogs like her had a life expectancy of 8 to 12 years. She is thirteen and I know we are living on bonus time. The last three days were just a dress rehearsal for her inevitable curtain call. But somehow, I know that when it happens, peace will come at some point as I anticipate the reality of being reunited again.

Isaiah wrote a lot about hope, and this Scripture describes how I felt … except instead of eagles, I got robins:

Isaiah 40:31 (New Revised Standard Version)

But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
    they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
    they shall walk and not faint.

I don’t know what battles of hopelessness you are facing today, but I pray you will take this Scripture to heart. It is hard to wait when you don’t know the outcome, but Jesus reminded us that he is with us wherever we go, even to the land of hopelessness. So hang on! Your Redeemer comes.

Happier Days

Layer by Layer

The practice of art restoration is fascinating. Normal decay, neglect, pollution, and the ravages of time take their toll on paintings, making them dull and even hard to see. Trained restorers can bring a painting back to life by slowly and carefully cleaning and removing layers of dirt and grime in order to reveal the details and colors of the artwork underneath.

     The restorer must be careful in their work. Using the wrong solvent to remove varnish might also remove the paint. It can take up to six months to restore just one inch of a painting. 

     Scripture study works in much the same way. A trained instructor can help us uncover layers of meaning by revealing the history, culture, and conditions of the time that the Scripture was written, giving clarity and understanding. 

     This is the work of the Holy Spirit when we read a Bible passage. How many times do you sit down to read something you’ve heard and read a hundred times and suddenly you hear something new? This happens all the time to me. Daily Bible study is imperative for bringing the fresh word of God into our lives. Like a master restorer, God reveals meaning and nuance to us with each reading. 

     And sometimes, it hurts. Sometimes that fresh reading brings a new word of conviction or rebuke that must be dealt with in our lives. 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that every Scripture is useful for teaching, revealing mistakes, correcting, and for training character. 

     When we are convicted by the Holy Spirit that it is time to repent, it would be good to remember what the people of Israel experienced when the Law was read once again after a long silence. When they heard God’s instruction and understood it, it caused them to weep. But the Levites and the priests who taught them instructed them to not be sad, but to rejoice. They were told that joy of the Lord was their strength (verse 10). A second chance was at hand. The day was proclaimed to be holy, and weeping and grieving were to cease. God’s word had been revealed and all who heard it could see and understand it clearly.

Nehemiah 8:7-12

The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, and Pelaiah[a]—helped the people to understand the Instruction while the people remained in their places. They read aloud from the scroll, the Instruction from God, explaining and interpreting it so the people could understand what they heard.

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all of the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Don’t mourn or weep.” They said this because all the people wept when they heard the words of the Instruction.

1“Go, eat rich food, and drink something sweet,” he said to them, “and send portions of this to any who have nothing ready! This day is holy to our Lord. Don’t be sad, because the joy from the Lord is your strength!”

11 The Levites also calmed all of the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy. Don’t be sad!” 12 Then all of the people went to eat and to drink, to send portions, and to have a great celebration, because they understood what had been said to them.

     We who read the Word that was God in Christ Jesus have even more reason to rejoice. While our sin is great and causes us to weep, his salvation is even greater, bringing us joy. Every time we sit down and study God’s word, we are given an opportunity for a new beginning, and that indeed is a cause for celebration.     

Having heard the word revealed, the people chose to rejoice and feasting and sharing commenced. So too should it be for us today, as we celebrate the Scripture made new in our lives and go forth to reveal it to others. God is the master painter! May his work be revealed in us.

God’s Artwork by Michelle Robertson

Joy in the Mourning

     One of the most important things we teach our children is manners. At an early age they learn to parrot back the proper response to “What do you say?” when they have been given something. Please and thank you are ingrained in them, and the smart ones realize as they grow up that a heartfelt please and thank you will help them go far in life.

     At the dedication of David’s palace, he remembered his manners. He invited others to join in with a hearty “thank you” to God for the gift of this place. David was acutely aware of God’s power and provision in his life and this special celebration was no exception. He marked with day with gratitude, joy, dancing, and revelry, making sure that God got all the praise and attention.

     David had known a lot of sadness in his life. From the falling out with his hero Saul, to the death of his firstborn, David had experienced grief.

Psalm 30 (Common English Bible)

You who are faithful to the Lord,
    sing praises to him;
    give thanks to his holy name!
His anger lasts for only a second,
    but his favor lasts a lifetime.
Weeping may stay all night,
    but by morning, joy!

11 You changed my mourning into dancing.
    You took off my funeral clothes
        and dressed me up in joy
12     so that my whole being
    might sing praises to you and never stop.
Lord, my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

     I love the beautiful set of contrasts in this passage. Anger and favor, night and morning, weeping and joy … we can see David’s grasp on the ups and downs of life, and it is a relief when he lands on singing praise at the end.

     It is good to remember that joy follows weeping when we are grieving the loss of someone or something important. There is a certainty in the rising of the sun every morning that brings comfort to the dark 3:00 am moments when we are so troubled, we can’t sleep. Hang on, this psalm advises. Joy will come.

     This passage literally says, “weeping will spend the night.” We are reminded of that houseguest we barely tolerate as we look forward to their departure. Have you ever counted the days until a houseguest leaves? I have! The good news is that grief has an appointed check-out time, and we can anticipate finding joy when it finally begins to abate. Grief may return again, but with God’s help we learn to accommodate it in better ways as time goes on. God’s word in this psalm is a reminder that sadness can turn into gladness with the passing of time and the remembering of God’s great works …and with good grief counseling. When you’re sad, it really helps to talk to someone.

     It also helps to remember that the sorrow of the night of the crucifixion was followed by the joy that came on Easter morning when the tomb was found to be empty. Facing grief with the surety of the resurrection can soothe even the most troubled heart.

     Focusing on the greatness of God helped David get through the tough moments of his life. That can help us, too. Psalm 30 reminds us that God can help us take off our funeral clothes and dress us up in joy if we yield our sadness to the power of the Holy Spirit.

May joy come in your mourning as you seek God’s face.

Joy in Bloom by Kathy Schumacher

Celebratory Joy

     As a pastor who lives in a popular beach town, there are two words that terrify me: wedding season. The Outer Banks of North Carolina have become one of the East Coast’s most popular wedding destinations, and I get my fair share of requests to officiate. 

     All weddings involve a certain amount of complexity, but these destination weddings are even more challenging for the officiant. You don’t know the people. You are dealing with outdoor venues; thus you have weather concerns. You have to travel to large beach rental houses in heavy Saturday traffic that are impossible to find due to our house numbering system here. And there may be a dog involved in the ceremony. One never knows. But when the details are sorted, every event is filled with happiness, feasting, gifts, food, and blessings. Joy abounds, God smiles down, and even the dog is happy.

     I imagine the party that David threw after returning the ark to the temple was like a huge wedding reception. Everyone ate, danced, sang, and shared the joy of his victory. Our passage from 1 Chronicles today positively overflows with happiness. Can you feel it?

1 Chronicles 16 (Common English Bible)

23 Sing to the Lord, all the earth!
    Share the news of his saving work every single day!
24 Declare God’s glory among the nations;
     declare his wondrous works among all people
25 because the Lord is great and so worthy of praise.
He is awesome beyond all other gods
26  because all the gods of the nations are just idols,
        but it is the Lord who created heaven!
27 Greatness and grandeur are in front of him;
     strength and joy are in his place.
28 Give to the Lord, all families of the nations—
     give to the Lord glory and power!
29     Give to the Lord the glory due his name!
        Bring gifts! Enter his presence!
        Bow down to the Lord
        in his holy splendor!
30 Tremble before him, all the earth!
    Yes, he set the world firmly in place;[a]
    it won’t be shaken.
31 Let heaven celebrate!
    Let the earth rejoice!
    Let the nations say, “The Lord rules!”
32 Let the sea and everything in it roar!
    Let the countryside and everything in it celebrate!
33 Then the trees of the forest will shout out joyfully
    before the Lord, because he is coming
    to establish justice on earth!
34 Give thanks to the Lord because he is good,
    because his faithful love endures forever.

     And did you notice that we are not just invited to celebrate, but are actually commanded to rejoice? Words like sing, declare, share, give, bring, bow, celebrate, shout, roar, etc. are action verbs that require a response on our part. We are not meant to be passive spectators at this party, but full participants.

     God is worthy of our celebratory joy. We celebrate God’s “holy splendor,” reminding us that in God’s set-apart-ness, he created every big and small thing, and all of nations rejoice. We celebrate God’s presence among us as the generous host of this event. We celebrate God’s superiority over the manmade gods and idols, acknowledging that our God created the heavens and the earth. We celebrate nature’s ability to join us in our praise as further proof of God’s power.

We celebrate!

     When I am standing on that beach or that sunset pier watching two people give their lives to each other, I appreciate their choice to take their vows in these beautiful settings. For every lovely church wedding I have performed, there is nothing like the sound of waves and seagulls adding their music to the ceremony. Indeed, creation rejoices in its Maker, and we get to bask in it all.

     Do something good for yourself today. Go outside and look around. Study the sky, the clouds, the ground, the fresh air, and rejoice!

And then give thanks to the Lord, because God’s love endures forever.

Celebrate! by Michelle Robertson

A New Song

     My husband likened it to playing “Whack A Mole.” As his father was in the hospital struggling with medical issues after hip surgery, the issues started changing by the hour. Nausea and lack of appetite became hiccups that wouldn’t stop, which became a recurring throat spasm, which became a possible stroke … every time the doctors addressed one problem, another one popped up. 

     And then on the sixth day, as my husband was getting ready to return to the hospital for another day of “what now?” the house phone rang. His father , who couldn’t speak night before, was calling with very explicit instructions on how to check the exterior oil tank to measure and calculate the amount of oil left to run the furnace. And just like that, new mercies began to pop up and we were reminded once again that “all we have needed, God’s hand hath provided.” (Great is Thy Faithfulness, United Methodist Hymnal p. 140).

     Our family’s joy from God’s saving help was palpable. Have you ever gone to bed thinking all was lost only to wake up in the morning to see God’s new mercies suddenly in place? When God steps in and rescues us, it is cause for great joy and celebration. Because God’s faithfulness is great, we can always rest assured that our troubles are not unnoticed or unimportant to our Maker.

     In our psalm today, we find words of thanksgiving and praise that enable us express the joy we feel when we have been helped. We are invited to sing to the Lord a new song. God is pleased by our praise and celebrates among us with the presence of the Holy Spirit to guide us.

Psalm 149:1-4

Praise the Lord!

Sing to the Lord a new song;
    sing God’s praise in the assembly of the faithful!
Let Israel celebrate its maker;
    let Zion’s children rejoice in their king!
Let them praise God’s name with dance;
    let them sing God’s praise with the drum and lyre!
Because the Lord is pleased with his people,
    God will beautify the poor with saving help.

     Our United Methodist communion liturgy includes this phrase: “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” I love the emphasis on “always and everywhere.” It is always right to give praise to God.

     What would your new song be today? Is there anything in your life for which you have not properly given God thanks? Sometimes we overlook the small things, thinking that such triviality does not warrant attention. But God works in the small things, like the measure of oil in the tank that awakens a man in his hospital bed with urgency of purpose and new clarity of mind. There is nothing we can’t thank God for, as everything belongs to God and comes from heaven above.

     So today, take a moment to share your joy in a new song of praise for the small things. Did you wake up? Praise God. Do your shoelaces work? Thank you, Jesus! Was there toothpaste in the tube? Hallelujah!

New Mercies I See by Michelle Robertson

New Foundations

     Many of us grew up thinking that certain things would always be the same. Summertime baseball, Grandmother’s homemade biscuits, going away to college, attending church every Sunday, and the nightly news brought to you by a serious anchorman in a suit were all things that we thought would last forever.  Pretty much all of that has changed. Baseball lasts until November, biscuits are easier to pick up from a drive-thru, college can be done entirely online, the “news” … well, what serves as “news” today is all over the place. And then there was that terrible thing called a global pandemic shut everything down, including Sunday worship.

     Do you remember how it felt to be away from your sanctuary for months? As a pastor, I felt as though I was in a really bad Twilight Zone episode. Nothing in life or in seminary prepared me for leading a church in a global pandemic. The disruption that shutting down in-person events brought has left many of us with some post-trauma stress. Let’s not even talk about schools being closed for months.

     But then there came that wonderful Sunday when we could regather in our buildings and worship together. What joy filled our hearts, even with masks and social distancing! To be gathered in our familiar church was a tremendous relief and blessing. Some of us wept over the changes, but we were home.

     As we read Ezra today, we can truly relate to the Israelites’ joy and sorrow as they laid the foundation of the new temple. Some had worshipped in the old temple, which was destroyed by the Babylonians many years before. As the rebuilding began in earnest, the older generation wept with the memories of Solomon’s grandiose glory days when an elaborate temple existed. But the new generation, having no burden of memory or expectation, shouted with joy to see the return of a permanent place of worship after such a long absence.

Some looked forward while others looked back.

Ezra 3:8-13 (Common English Bible)

8 In the second month of the second year after their arrival at God’s house in Jerusalem, Zerubbabel, Shealtiel’s son, and Jeshua, Jozadak’s son, and the rest of their kin—the priests and the Levites and all who had come from the captivity to Jerusalem—made a beginning. They appointed Levites 20 years old and above to oversee the work on the Lord’s house. 9 Then Jeshua with his sons and his kin, Kadmiel and his sons, Binnui and his sons, the sons of Judah, along with the sons of Henadad, the Levites, and their sons and kin, collaborated to supervise the workers in God’s house.

10 When the builders laid the foundation of the Lord’s temple, the priests clothed in their vests and carrying their trumpets, and the Levites the sons of Asaph with cymbals, arose to praise the Lord according to the directions of Israel’s King David. 11 They praised and gave thanks to the Lord, singing responsively, “He is good, his graciousness for Israel lasts forever.”

All of the people shouted with praise to the Lord because the foundation of the Lord’s house had been laid. 12 But many of the older priests and Levites and heads of families, who had seen the first house, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this house, although many others shouted loudly with joy. 13 No one could distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, because the people rejoiced very loudly. The sound was heard at a great distance.

     We are invited to look forward. In those moments of remembering the good ole days it is good to remember that not everything was so good. Nostalgia can haze our thoughts, but God has promised us a future with hope that is a guarantee of joy that helps us look forward. (see Jeremiah 29:11)

     One thing we learned in the pandemic is that worship cannot be restricted to a building. We worshipped at a baseball field, the beach, the front lawn of the church, and even a graveyard on Easter. Ephesians 2:20 reminds us that we are built on a foundation of the patriarchs with Christ himself as our cornerstone. Our foundation is set and stable.

May we shout for joy!

Looking Ahead by Michelle Robertson

Help Me, Lord!

What is your favorite prayer? Not a formal prayer, like the Lord’s Prayer or the Prayer of Confession, but your personal go-to prayer that you say over and over again? Mine is “Help me, Lord!” This is a prayer I use all day long. I use it in extreme situations, such as the time my daughter had a fibroid removed that turned out to be a malignant tumor, and in the trivial moments of driving in bad traffic or trying to run up a steep hill. “Help me, Lord” is a universal plea that comes in handy in any situation.

David uses this prayer in the first verse of today’s reading. His simple and concise request encompasses a lot of background angst. His enemies were pressing in and trying to kill him. The mentally deranged King Saul was determined to eliminate him. He was on the run. Have you ever felt the urgent need for God’s help? I think we have all been there.

Psalm 109:26-31

Help me, Lord my God!
    Save me according to your faithful love!

27 And let them know that this is by your hand—
    that you have done it, Lord!

28 Let them curse—but you, bless me!
    If they rise up, let them be disgraced,
        but let your servant celebrate!
29 Let my accusers be dressed in shame;
    let them wear their disgrace like a coat.
30 But I will give great thanks to the Lord with my mouth;
    among a great crowd I will praise God!
31 Because God stands right next to the needy,
    to save them from any who would condemn them.

I am reminded of the Canaanite mother who approached Jesus in Matthew 15:25. Her daughter was possessed by a demon, and she went to the Lord with a simple “help me” prayer. Her persistent faith won Jesus over and her daughter was saved. 

Part of our take-away from this is a reminder that none of us approach God for help based on our own merit. David had multiple sins in his past and the Canaanite woman was a pagan. Neither one could show their credentials as they made their request for help. But God answered their prayers, not based on their worthiness but on the extravagant grace and mercy that flows from his heart. This is good news for us today, as we stand before God needing help. We can’t earn grace, but we can receive it.

David’s response to God’s intervention in his crisis was to “give great thanks to the Lord with my mouth; among a great crowd I will praise God” (verse 30). Do we do that? Do we remember to not only thank God for his intervention, but to do so in front of an unbelieving world?

As United Methodists, we take a vow to support our churches with prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. Notice that last word. Like David, we are called to give witness to the power of God in our lives in a way that shows people who God is and whose we are. Like David, we have opportunities to praise God among the great crowds. Who knows what an impression that might make?

And we don’t even need a pulpit. I once met a Jewish woman who noticed that I used the word “blessed” a lot. Finally she asked me about it, and I had a chance to give my testimony. Even our word choices can be a witness to our faith and enable us to praise God to others in ways that are invitational and approachable. Thanks be to God!

Moonglow by Sharon Tinucci

Leave It

     When my large yellow Labrador retriever was a small and somewhat manageable puppy, we trained her on simple commands: Come, Stay, Wait, and Leave It. She came from an Amish farm in Pennsylvania, and it didn’t take us long to realize that she only spoke German. Or maybe it was that obstinate thing that dogs have when they want to do life their own way. In any case, “Leave It” was never quite accomplished. There are many things she still refuses leave: my boot in her mouth as she trots around the house, a prize piece of meat that she has procured from the counter, the geese who live in her back yard, and that toy that she insists on bringing everywhere. “Leave It” is not in her vocabulary.

     I think the same thing goes for us. God’s command to “Leave It” goes ignored and rejected. We love to hold onto our sinful behavior, our anger, our addictions, our inappropriate relationships, our arrogance, etc. Our refusal to leave things that are dangerous grieves the very heart of our Lord who wants what is best for us.

     Paul tried to train his church in Rome to leave behind things that would be harmful to their walk as new Christ-followers. He encouraged them to be people of peace who relate to others as equals. His most challenging words are in regard to repaying evil for evil. He contends that vengeance is not for us to pursue, but something we should leave entirely up to God.

Romans 12: 16-21 (Common English Bible)

16 Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. 17 Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.

18 If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. 19 Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord.20 Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. 21 Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.

     This may be the hardest lesson for us today. It is a normal and natural response to strike back when we have been struck. Who among us has not dreamt of seeing an enemy receive their comeuppance?

     But God calls us to a better way. God’s word invites us to the standard of humility that Jesus exhibited. God’s word tells us to live peaceably with everyone. God’s word demands that we only do good to those who have opposed and betrayed us. God’s word requires that we not be defeated by evil, but that we defeat evil with good. And so if our enemy is hungry or thirsty, we are commanded to supply what they need. 

     This is the way we will win the world for Christ. To take on his servant aspect and serve others, even our enemies, will be a witness to the power of the unconditional love we received at the cross. And the world will know us by our love.

     There is genius in this. Do you know the best way to defeat your enemy? Make him a friend. Thus your enemy no longer exists.

     Where is God calling you to “leave it” … to leave your self- righteous anger or your need for retribution? Leave it up to him, and you will find peace.

Leave It All Behind by Michelle Robertson

The Solid Rock

A few years ago I had a wonderful opportunity to hike a glacier in Alaska. It was the trip of a lifetime, and I was determined to experience the beauty of God’s creation firsthand. I am a runner by choice, so I assumed I was fit enough for the venture. I was wrong. The uphill, rocky, wild, and slippery climb was terrifying. 

     Having to lift my foot higher than the opposite knee to keep moving upward was exhausting, and the beauty of the dancing and spraying waterfalls only made the rocky path more treacherous. There were no railings or guardrails, just slippery rocks and wet foliage. Worse yet, experienced hikers and climbers older than me kept passing me as though I was standing still … which I would have preferred doing! 

     The experience reminded me of the danger of slippery slopes, whether they are physical or spiritual. Who has not been in that critical moment of realizing that to move forward with an idea, a temptation, or inappropriate pursuit meant risking falling hard off the path that God calls us to pursue? In terms of brain development, risk assessment is not as well developed in our youth as it becomes with age and experience. We have all put our souls on a slippery slope at one point or another.

     Fortunately, we have a God whose faithful love steadies us and whose comfort calms us. Unlike the glacier trek that we find ourselves on, God is a dry and stable rock of refuge for our unstable tendencies.

     This thought is especially comforting when we are being assaulted by evildoers. When the wicked gang up against us, God commands us to be still and not respond. Psalm 94 reminds us that God will destroy the wicked for their evil and we are to stand still on the rock of this promise.

Psalm 24:16-23 (The Message)

Who stood up for me against the wicked?
    Who took my side against evil workers?
If God hadn’t been there for me,
    I never would have made it.
The minute I said, “I’m slipping, I’m falling,”
    your love, God, took hold and held me fast.
When I was upset and beside myself,
    you calmed me down and cheered me up.

20-23 Can Misrule have anything in common with you?
    Can Troublemaker pretend to be on your side?
They ganged up on good people,
    plotted behind the backs of the innocent.
But God became my hideout,
    God was my high mountain retreat,
Then boomeranged their evil back on them:
    for their evil ways he wiped them out,
    our God cleaned them out for good.

To attempt retribution on our own is a sure way to slide downhill into the behavior of the evildoers, making us just like them. This is an important teaching. God will take up our cause and bring the wicked to justice. Leave it be, says the Lord. Vengeance is God’s alone (Romans 12:19).

     I eventually made it down from the glacier, and you will arrive safely from your arduous trek if you put your life and your safety in God’s hands. God is the one who will stand up for us and help us when havoc wreaks in our lives and our feet feel unsure. As we sing in the hymn, “On Christ the solid rock I stand! All other ground is sinking sand.” (My Hope is Built, United Methodist Hymnal p. 368).

Slippery Slope