Psalms Devotional

Psalm 1:3a

He is like a tree

planted by streams of water…

In my first house, we had a prodigious, live oak tree in our front yard. In our second house, we planted red oaks in our backyard that grew to be climbable and now in our third house, we once again have enormous live oaks surrounding our home.

All these trees were planted. Just as this verse says…a tree planted. We are likened to trees that the Lord has planted. He grants us salvation, grace, and mercy. We don’t plant ourselves. We don’t earn our righteousness. He permanently plants us, we don’t get uprooted. So, we are like trees in this way. 

What kind of trees? 

…to grant to those who mourn in Zion—

to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,

the oil of gladness instead of mourning,

the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;

that they may be called oaks of righteousness,

the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.

Oaks of righteousness.

In Isaiah 61, it shows that those who have suffered can be oaks. The Lord wants to give mourners, a beautiful headdress, the oil of gladness, the garment of praise. Most of us are grieving something or have lost or suffered in some way. After experiencing ashes, mourning, and faint spirits, He desires to give them the opposite of their earthly experience. And, that through these sufferings, they would be called “oaks of righteousness” that the Lord planted to give Him glory.  Oaks permanently planted in His Presence.

An oak tree can withstand huge storms, hurricanes even. They are tough trees with deep root systems. The battering winds shaping their branches.

This tree does not fear when heat comes or when the year of drought descends according to Jeremiah 17:8-

Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,

whose trust is the Lord.

He is like a tree planted by water,

that sends out its roots by the stream,

and does not fear when heat comes,

 for its leaves remain green,

and is not anxious in the year of drought,

 for it does not cease to bear fruit.”

Notice–the heat WILL come and the droughts WILL come. But, the Lord can help us to stand like oaks of righteousness planted, cared for, strong, deeply rooted, when the difficulties of life bear down.

Loss-child · loss-suicide

Shame-Part II

Remember Hester in the Scarlet Letter. Her sin was worn prominently on her chest, all the while Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale etched his chest and decayed from the secret of their adulterous relationship that bore the child, Pearl. One person completely exposed, the other’s sin hidden, until the end of Dimmesdale’s life. 

Hester’s sin screamed in the open; Dimmesdale suffered in silence. Both sorrowful for their sin. Both under the hypocritical eyes of their fellow sinners. 

To have compassion on the proud, I remember Jesus crying as He looked out over Jerusalem: Why? Because He had compassion on men and women, who think they have it together but are ALL full of wretchedness of one form or another.

It’s a matter of admitting it and turning from it and running to Him. Remember King Saul and King David. Both sinned: Saul not obeying God’s instructions, David having sex with Bathsheba (another’s wife). Saul was stiff-necked and prideful, while David was contrite-begging for mercy.

So, whether our sin is known or not, we all do it. So, why shame those whose sin is out in the open. Rather, have compassion because maybe your sin will be made public one day and you will have wanted that same grace and mercy.

What would Jesus gently say to people after protecting them from each other? Gently, gently-Go, and sin no more (knowing they would). I can hear the tone of love in His words.

Also, have mercy for the struggling in the shadows. It is not shameful to get help when needed. This is a ploy of the enemy-to keep the struggling in a state of shame and to remind of the many failures and falls. There is no shame in having a mental illness or an addiction or unresolved issues or family problems or past sin and getting the specific help or treatment necessary!!

Cry out for help, seek it out, until you find what specifically works for you. Get down to what is happening in your heart and mind. And, for sure, don’t let shame hold you back from the Healer of your soul!

https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-does-it-mean-for-jesus-to-despise-shame

Loss-child · loss-suicide

Shame-Part I

“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore

And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot

In the Caribbean by providence impoverished

In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”

The opening words of the play Hamilton. Loaded with possible shame.

In grief, shame can come in the strangest of ways. It can be in knowing or unknowing individuals making fun of that which you are going through, comments made to separate oneself from that type of situation or avoidance of speaking to someone in difficult circumstances.

When you have lost someone, sometimes people struggle with knowing what to say. I made a commitment not to judge others for this. I would have been the same way. In fact, I remember a time with a friend who lost a dear one and I did not know what to say and I did the same thing: I avoided, because I thought I would say the wrong thing. It was easier.

This has not been the bulk of my experience. The vast majority of my experience has been people who embrace and initiate. I have been extremely rich in this way. My community has embraced our family. But, when shame strikes: I have a verse that I think about to get me through the grief-filled moment. 

Hebrews 12:1-2 encourages, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

When it says that Jesus despised shame, I thought, yes, I can despise shame too!!!! I don’t have to receive shame. I can hate it and reject it. And, the anger that juxtaposes it. So, when I feel judged by myself or others, I think to myself, Jesus despised shame, I can too

He looked to the joy set before Him as the verse says. He knew why He was on earth and the purpose and actions that He must take. I, too, know that I have a purpose on the earth and I know that the Lord has things for me to do. I do not need to get bogged down in mud of shame. The enemy tries to hold my head in the filthy, muddy water of shame, plunging my head in, making me suffocate and gasp for air. Trying to make me dirtier than I already am. Wasting time. Whispering lies.

But, Jesus gives me this very, very practical example. He knew that He would endure the shame of His own disciples running away for a time, ashamed of Him. The shame of being flogged, tortured, mocked, questioned, spit at, yelled at, and complete exposure on the cross. Feeling abandoned by God and people. But, He went through the suffering anyway and fulfilled the job that the Lord had for Him on the earth.

Psalms Devotional

Psalm 1:2

Blessed is the man

who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,

nor stand in the way of sinners,

nor sit in the seat of mockers,

But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. 

A blessed man is a delighted man, a man who is dwelling in the safety of his Refuge, relieved to be forgiven despite iniquity: he will enjoy God’s forever favor. He is full of satisfaction, because he is redeemed (Titus 2:14). 

Not getting caught up in sin brings joy. Sin is depressing. Instead of walking, standing, and sitting in sin, the blessed man can have happiness in the instruction (law) of the Lord, in the words of God. It is not joyous to get trapped and to go deeper into sin. This is a sneaky battle. Sin starts with words (counsel), moves to participation (way), and then a position (seat) at the table. The fighting, blessed man learns to walk, sit, and stand in holiness. But, this duel brings delight and freedom!

Delight is an activity of the heart, an internal state, where God is experienced. The blessed man wants to glorify God and devour His words. He is hungry, famished, starving. Delighting is devouring not duty. Devour is consistent contemplation, internalizing for direction. Not religiosity, but a need and a genuine desire for help or to be close to God. According to Martin Luther, “no prosperity, nor adversity, nor the world, nor the prince of it, can either take away or destroy” God’s Word; “for it victoriously burst its way through the poverty, evil report, the cross, death, and hell, and in the midst of adversities, shines the brightest.” Delight comes in knowing that though there is failure, there is forgiveness (Psalm 32:1-2). It is not a curse or duty to be in the law (God’s Word), but rather a delight, because of the immense mercy offered.

Meditating means to intently observe, to hunt, compare.  It means to chew the cud-like a cow. Swallow the Word, digest it, spit it back up, and do it again and again and again-getting the sweetness and nutritional value out of the Word. Sometimes I chew gum and get all the sweetness out of it. Chewing on God’s Word is similar. Each time you chew on a new piece, there can be a sweetness and a delight that satisfies. This sweetness helps cure the deeply hurting heart, the painful wounds, the aching of the soul, when nothing else works. Sometimes I chew one piece of gum, but it is not enough, it is too small of a treat, so I must get another and another. Same with God’s Word. Sometimes I just get a little hint of the healing or the truth being told to my tattered heart, but if I keep going a little longer, a little longer, my heart then gets a large dose of medicine, an epiphany, a catharsis.

Notice—truth is needed both in the day and in the darkness of night.

Loss-child · loss-suicide

Guilt

Grief consists of a tangled ball of emotions: sadness, anger, guilt, blame, rage, abandonment, trauma. It is not necessarily a neat predictable ordering of emotions. Each person can experience different emotions. Suicide grief has conflicting emotions and an intensity of emotions. Abandonment and rage, yet love and sorrow are felt.

I distinctly remember what I thought was a strong English writing assignment for Romeo and Juliet as a high school teacher. The assignment was called: “Who’s To Blame?” The essay prompt was asking who was to blame for the death of two teenagers who died by suicide. Was it Friar Lawrence and the Nurse who allowed them to marry? Was it the Capulets who had insisted that Juliet marry Paris? Was it the circumstances–including the killing of Mercutio? Was it fate? Was it timing? In none of these situations was abuse involved. Many movies are the same. The parents, antagonists, or others are typically to blame. The focus is on who is to blame instead of signs or suicide awareness or mental health awareness or the grief of the families/friends/communities afterward. 

Blaming others or self does not take away the piercing pain, it creates more pain: more anger, more bitterness, more hatred. Blame/guilt has been the hardest part of grief. Every action of parenting or relationship is analyzed. Maybe I tried too hard, maybe I didn’t do enough. The deepest sense of failure is felt.

But, this is the truth: you are not responsible for your loved one’s death in any way. Why do suicide survivors blame themselves: “Psychiatrists theorize that human nature…resists the idea that we cannot control all the events of our lives” so strongly that people would rather blame themselves than “accept the inability to prevent it” (SOS). The closer you are to the person, the more harshly you might blame, “I should have known or seen the signs.” However, we are human. We are not perfect people. We do not foresee perfectly. We do not have perfect discernment. Think of all of the things that you DID do to help your lost loved one. 

As I was reading the Gospels during the Covid shutdown, I read about the disciples not being able to cast out demons when they went out on their own in Matthew 17. They were human and not God. They were imperfect people, and even with Jesus right there, they did not have perfect discernment and power!

So, who is responsible? Notice, I said responsible. Responsible simply means an acknowledgement of fact. Blame is accusatory. This is the tricky part of grieving a suicide: many times (90%) clinical depression or mental illness is involved. Therefore, one is suffering in a black, treacherous pit of despair. Never did I know how powerful depression could be: a power unto itself. Likely, the forces of evil assaulted more than intensely, a frenzy of attack and ambush. However, on some level, “there was a conscious choice made…even if made with a clouded mind” (SOS). This is tough to swallow and survivors find it easier to blame themselves many times. Acknowledging this does not mean that you do not love them or that this defines their eternity. Just as I should not blame people for my actions, I should not blame myself for others’ actions. Free yourself from guilt.

(SOS Handbook) For those who have lost someone to suicide: suicidology.org/resources/suicide-loss-survivors/

Psalms Devotional

Psalm 1:1

I am a year out from losing my youngest son and over the past six months have realized that reading Psalms really helps with grief. I have long gone to the Psalms when I needed comfort or direction. Now, I see the authors lamenting and then seeking God. Both of these coexisting: being real with the pain, but then remembering the truth of who God is and what His Word says. Grief and Glory. The Psalmists use a lot of metaphors–this helps those who are depressed or grieving. So, I have decided to study them in depth.

Blessed is the man

who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,

nor stands in the way of sinners,

nor sits in the seat of scoffers; 

Psalm 1:1

Psalm 1 was the very first Scripture I had ever studied. I had just become a believer and my friend, Lori, asked me to study the Word together. This became my life chapter.  I remember reading this Psalm and trying to figure out the meaning. I was 18. I read bits of  the Bible the summer before, but after praying to receive Christ as my Savior and Lord in December of 1988, I read the Word and it was different. Things made more sense. It was like blinders had come off. Now, 32 years later, I reread these same verses and there is still more digging to do and more wisdom to see.

Spurgeon reveals that this Psalm is called the “Christian’s Guide”–discovering the quicksand where the ungodly sink and the firm ground where believers stand. Augustine and Jerome claim that this Psalm is intended to describe the character of Jesus. Many see this Psalm as an introduction to the entire book of Psalms.

Blessed. This has been a very hard word for me to get my mind around while grieving. I have had a hard time understanding and believing that I am blessed now, because I am experiencing so much pain. But, the definition of this word helps-blessed means “deep-seated joy and contentment IN GOD”.  It may not be that I am feeling happy. But, I do know, even when I am angry with God (a normal part of grief), that I have a deep-seated joy and contentment–understanding His love for me and sacrifice for me. There is a core joy in my heart beneath all of the tears and hurt. Another definition is “redemptive favor”: the idea that He has redeemed me is what makes me “blessed.” His salvation is what makes me blessed.

This Psalm starts out similarly to the Sermon on the Mount: the first sermon that Jesus gives on the side of the Sea of Galilee to his disciples and listening Pharisees. It is a benediction-the utterance of a blessing upon a group of people.

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or ungodly. Instead, he walks in the commandments of the Lord which brings the way of peace. Luke 1:79 encourages that the Lord can “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” His footsteps are ordered by God’s Word and he does not herd with those who do evil. It is important to remember, though, that hardship and suffering may come, even when we seek God wholeheartedly; however, obedience still brings peace.

The ungodly gives counsel.

The sinner has a way.

The scorner takes a seat.

What is the ungodly’s counsel? He doesn’t care about his salvation or the salvation of others. He advises: don’t trouble yourself with prayer or reading or repentance–thinking his ways are right, even appearing to live rightly. Maybe even taking the part of teacher, counselor, instructor but not being qualified as he does not humble himself to walk in the law of the Lord.

The sinner’s way? Pick your label. Pick your sin. Pick your vice. But, this verse says don’t STAND in it. Stand means to be “firm or fixed” like a column. Don’t stay in it like an ancient column in ruin. We all sin, but we can repent and seek restoration and forgiveness. We are all sinners. However, Christians are repentant sinners.

The scorner sits. Sits down. Makes themselves comfortable in the mocking of God and in believing all unbelief.

So, here we see the contrast between the unrighteous and the righteous. Both sin, but the godly person cares about salvation and the salvation of others. They repent and resist sin. This may be a huge battle, with many defeats, but it is a battle nonetheless; the believer is not comfortable in the sin and in mocking God.

The Psalmist, David, puts this in the negative: walks not… nor stands…nor sits. There is no room for having BOTH: Don’t listen to the godly and ungodly, don’t follow the sinner and the righteous, don’t sit with the scorner and the humble as to the way you should go. Sometimes we listen to both. This passage is saying don’t. Instead, go to the law of the Lord to instruct and teach and show you.

loss-suicide

Preserve

All three of my kids worked as lifeguards in the summers. More than a year ago, driving him home from work, my youngest son, shared with me that he had rescued a little girl from the lake. She had fallen from a zipline into the water and was unconscious. Another lifeguard alerted him, and he picked her up out of the water. She awoke in his arms. 

Helping to save a life is a big deal. This is National Suicide Prevention Week. Over the years, as a teacher and counselor, I have aided many students through suicidal ideation/self-harm and assisted them in finding help in the deep water of depression. I had never lost anyone. This year, after losing my son, I have received many requests about helping people through suicidal thoughts. 

I picture being ready for this, much like CPR training, it is essential to stay fresh and updated. There is a QPR training at qprinstitute.com/individual-training that I find very insightful. It takes 60 minutes and costs $30. It is WELL worth the investment. Most suicidal people “tend not to self-refer, resist treatment, self-medicate, hide their level of despair, go undetected, and go untreated” (QPR).

Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR). This training gives strong questions to ask-indirectly-Have you been unhappy lately? And direct questions-Are you suicidal? It dispels myths such as—asking someone increases the risk. It teaches you how to be brave, listen well, and become a better listener. This is huge. Then, persuading the person to get help. “I want you to live. Will you go with me to see…?” If no, then refer, there are numbers to call 1-800-SUICIDE, hospitals to go, 911 to call. Relevant warning signs are covered. This small paragraph is no replacement for the training.

There are no guarantees. But, we can try hard and try to be as prepared as humanly possible. John Locke philosophized-we have the right to LIFE, liberty, and property. Jefferson wrote about LIFE, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. They called these natural rights. Locke believed our function was to create a society with others to work and PRESERVE both oneself and the community. We long deeply to help and preserve and love those who are suffering and sinking in this way. When the jailer…was about to kill himself…Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself!” (Acts 16: 27-28). This is the cry and prayer of my heart!

Art-Lana Ngo

Loss-child · loss-suicide

Tapestry

My life changed one year ago. Today I wake up to a warm early morning dawn, but I remember the nightmare of a year ago. The darkness of the night, driving to the dawn of a new day. A completely new day. A completely changed life. In shock-laying there in the crisp white bed sheets, clinging to one another. Feeling a pain so deep your body shuts down. Not knowing what to do. Just waiting and numb. Waiting for family and friends to face this reality with us.

This weekend with the While We’re Waiting (https://whilewerewaiting.org/) ministry, our leaders shared that losing a child to suicide is on par with a concentration camp experience according to the American Psychiatric Assoc. Corrie ten Boom survived the Holocaust, after a grueling experience with her sister Betsie. She writes her story in my favorite book The Hiding Place. I viewed this play last year, feeling the connection of pain yet hope. After WWII was over, Corrie traveled, speaking of her experiences and survival. She would show the audience the underside of a tapestry: there was a tangled, ugly mess. No rhyme or reason, just a bunch of threads going every which way, and lots and lots of big and small knots. The beauty of the tapestry could not be seen. On the front side-a beautifully embroidered crown.

God works through the very messiest of situations. In the midst of the worst, He can still be found, the Master Weaver. Betsie, Corrie’s sister, has one of the most abiding lives I have ever read about. Some of her words are some of the most gentle, insightful, focused perspectives in the midst of extreme evil: “The center of His will is our only safety. Let us pray that we may always know it.”

My missions pastor read Corrie’s poem to me as a comfort during this past year. It can be found in the home where she and her family hid people from the Nazis:

My life is but a weaving
Between my God and me.
I cannot choose the colors
He weaveth steadily.
Oft’ times He weaveth sorrow;
And I in foolish pride
Forget He sees the upper
And I the underside.
Not ’til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly
Will God unroll the canvas
And reveal the reason why.
The dark threads are as needful
In the weaver’s skillful hand
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned
He knows, He loves, He cares;
Nothing this truth can dim.
He gives the very best to those
Who leave the choice to Him.

Art-Lana Ngo

loss-abandonment · Loss-child

Dust to Dust

Dust to dust. Dust to Adam (Genesis 2:7). Adam to dust. Spirit to heaven. Spirit reunites with dust. New body. New Jerusalem (Revelation 21). No tears. No pain. But, for now, sin and brokenness create pain.

As I stare at the stone, I look at the dates. So young. So tragic. Why? What happened? The familiar, repeated whisper: Help me. The sun rises. The breeze blows. Ironically, I look to other gravestones for comfort. I see “1946-died at birth.” Ouch. How hard would that be. We are not alone in losing a child. I search for more. December 23, 1973-December 15, 1974. Less than a year of life. I start a subtraction frenzy, looking at every stone. Imagining what happened. 21 years. 30 years. 89 years. 12 years. A dad and a child died on the same day-maybe a car accident. Veterans: World War II, Vietnam, Korea. Heroic deaths maybe, others maybe not. Each life with its own lifespan. Each life with its own story. Some weak, some strong. I stand realizing, I too will be here one day. No one knows when, where, how. But, death awaits. Therefore, grief awaits. I think of The Book Thief. Someone shared a story of growing up orphaned with me this week and this strangely comforted me: Some of us grieve for a lifetime.

Romans 8:23-24 talks about the suffering and groanings of Christians: “And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves (as does the creation), waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.”

Our groaning is due to the corrupt conditions and sin in ourselves and others. The contrast between who we are and what we will be causes a deep groaning. I’ve never quite felt such groaning before now. But, now I really get this verse. Things are wrong in the world. But, we are to wait patiently, persevering, enduring the suffering, being ready, knowing that what the Lord allows is best. So, we groan, and the Holy Spirit can comfort us as we groan. “And in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words;” The Spirit groans too and links our heart to His and ministers to us in our time of weakness.

Loss-child

Questions-Part II

As I mainstreamed back into regular life, I was walking into Hobby Lobby.  I walked to the back of the store with all of the life sayings on wooden plaques. I was stunned. I read them and I talked to myself. I don’t believe half of these anymore! I was numb. Not that I received my wisdom from wooden rectangles, but it brought up questions. God, what am I supposed to do? Again, the question came like a bolt of lightning: I don’t understand WHY this happened. What am I supposed to do?  I lost my son! The thought came: Job.  That’s all I could think of. Job. So, I started thinking about Job. I googled Job 1. He lost 10 children! I never noticed that before. Ten children! I felt like I lost 10 children. He suffered so greatly and yet, it says that he was a righteous man (sinful, yes, but righteous because he believed God). Job didn’t do anything out of the ordinary to bring his calamity upon himself. I identified with this. I asked myself, in the middle of Hobby Lobby, how did he handle this?????? Answer: He didn’t curse You. He talked to You, He even questioned You, but continued to pursue You. THAT is what I am going to do.

So, I keep talking. To say that I lost my son for my betterment or growth does not make sense. Most answers to WHY do not satisfy. 1 Corinthians 13:12 states, we do not see fully on the earth; we see a poor reflection, but one day we will see face to face.

I keep questioning. When I ask why, I am saying that I need some answers. I keep asking until there is a transformation to what can I do to grow. Job asked 16x, Habakkuk asked God what He was doing, Jesus asked (Why have you forsaken me?) It is okay to ask. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). We don’t always know WHY, but we can focus on the answers that He HAS given. We can focus on the WHO. Who is going to heal this shattered heart? The One who brings comfort (James 4:8a-Come near to God and He will come near to you). We can focus on HOW-how can I use this in my life to glorify You? Those are some things that I DO know and can daily choose to focus on.

I keep pursuing. In Job 42, Job talks to God: “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand… You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” Job lost the God he knew. (I lost the God I knew. I thought life would have a certain pattern: I obey, things go well. I know that is very limited now.) Job was not sorry for his honesty with God, but for his narrow view. I had a narrow view. Job thought he knew God, but only when he lost everything, did he truly SEE God. This is my pursuit…to KNOW Him and SEE Him in the midst of great hurt.