Mrs. Wilkinson was a tall slender older woman with wide hips and a dirndl-skirted robin-brown-and-red plaid dress. She had only slightly faded auburn hair, even in what I thought then was her “old age”, in a short bob. She blinked often and kept a stern and steady gaze. I was somewhat afraid of her as she towered over us each Sunday morning in first grade Sunday School.
I don’t remember much about the spoken lessons in our Sunday School class, but this I remember very clearly: we learned the hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and we were invited by this stern lady to bring in nature objects we’d collected at home. We would show our objects–a birds’ nest, a little pile of pebbles, a leaf, a feather–and then place them on the nature table in the room. My fear of her was softened by her love of the natural world.
I must have brought an object one day, because in my memory, I am talking with her and she is bending down slightly in front of me to really listen to me. Though she didn’t smile with her mouth, her eyes smiled and she was gentle and kind. She really listened, and whatever I had brought to the nature table, whether it was an object to place there, or a question about it (I can’t remember which), she responded meaningfully. She received me and took me seriously. The experience is somehow connected very closely with the hymn. God must be like that, I thought.
We also learned a song that has this gently repeating phrase “He careth for you”. We learned “This is My Father’s World”. The message was clear to me even then, that our Creator is kind and loving, creating all the beautiful natural world and deeply personal, caring for me as if, like Mrs. Wilkinson had modeled, I was the only person in the room worth listening to.
Put to the test. Cut to a new scene. I am below age 9. My older sister is playing with her friend and I am the tagalong younger sister.
At our Florida home, we had a carport attached to the side of our house with 3 interconnected utility rooms at the far wall. These rooms were piled high with yard tools, stored and boxed items, and a washing room where my mother washed and machine-wrung out our clothes. When the doors were closed, it was pitch black. Being on the outside of the house in Florida with no seals on the utility doors, there would be flying Palmetto bugs (i.e., cockroaches) scurrying for cover any time a door would open. We knew they were there.
That day, as siblings will often do, my sister decided to cut the sibling strings and I was lured, I suppose, into the middle utility room and suddenly the door shut and the room went completely black. I heard the padlock clicking and she and her friend running away into the yard and beyond laughing. My fear was so palpable I can still remember it. Yet something happened that day that changed my life.
Standing in complete and utter darkness with not a ray or fade of light to help, the chorus “He careth for you” began repeating in my mind in soft gentle tones. This was not conjured by me; it came to me unasked and stopped my fear. I was aware in my body that I was not alone, that a gentle presence was with me, and intellectually I knew it was God. Christ was with me there in the room. My muscles relaxed and I was overcome with a peace that truly surpasses all human explanation, and all fear drained away. I stood relaxed and patient with my head bowed, facing the direction of the door, just “kept” in a state of communion with the God whom I had come to know in Mrs. Wilkinson’s class. I welcomed Him and rested in Him.
This peace was interrupted by the sound of my mother coming out of the kitchen door into the carport calling my name and wondering where I was. I don’t remember how I communicated my presence…whether I knocked on the door or called to her from inside the room, but she came and began unlocking the padlock and asking, “Where is your sister?” in a comprehending tone of voice. I was free, but I was changed.
Changed. I don’t know what happened to my sister that day, all memory stops at my point of deliverance. But I do know that I met the reality of the God of Creation; I met my gentle Savior who cared for me. I knew then He is real and have never doubted his existence or love. At age 9, I came before the congregation and declared that He is Lord of my life. I was baptized into the family of God and have been His ever since. My decision was rational and permanent.
I wasn’t a ideal child by any means. But in my heart, these spiritual matters were important. When I behaved like a brat, I felt it and I repented in my heart. I experienced change. I used to exaggerate, mostly unintentionally, because I enjoyed the responses I got from a good story. I inflated. I felt the sting of the reality that I was a habitual liar. I lied to my parents when I was afraid of getting caught for some stupid mindless thing that I had done (I often forgot things or lost things or said something inappropriate like a shared confidence). God gradually changed me into one who pursues the truth at all costs.
In junior high school, I was deeply moved by the revival teams that came and went from our church, and a calling for us to read the bible all the way through. We were given a “The Way” paperback Bible with a gridded table of each book of the Bible (a square for each chapter) to check off when we’d read the chapters. I read through the Bible more than once in those early years and I wrestled with what it said. The things I thought were out of character with the God I knew, I figured that there must be something that I did not know. I questioned and waited for further learning. Throughout my life, God answered those questions, those difficult parts of the Bible, as I kept studying.
I contemplated eternity. I wept for the men in Vietnam and wept again when President Nixon announced on the television that they were coming home for good. I talked with the Lord about my fears of nuclear war and my constant fear in the night that we would be robbed or suffer violence like I had seen so many suffer on the nightly news. And I came to see myself as a separate human, able to say no to unholy things. I “thumped” my Bible to friends when I felt they were abandoning the faith they held. I told strangers about the Lord when “mall walking” with our revival team and found to my total surprise that people were uncommonly interested to be confronted about Jesus!
And at a certain point in life, I also set Him aside in a rational way, because I was not happy with His delay in giving me what I assumed were crucial needs in my life. I deliverately set out to get those things on my own, my own way, casting Him aside. And I suffered the consequences of that decision and it scarred. Still, I was not destroyed, though I came so very close. God heard my cries and delivered me from the bondage of my choices and set me on higher ground. I came, or was brought by the Lord, to the point where I realized I couldn’t serve God half-heartedly. My life was either all His, or it was not His at all. The choice was mine. So I dedicated myself entirely to Him once for all. I was, by this time, dating my husband. In my young motherhood, I drew even closer, each time abandoning more of the residue of my selfish journey in this world
I have not done this perfectly, of course, but the decision was binding. When I err, I feel it deeply inside, and the corrections come much quicker. I am deeply repentent in soul and I know I must come to Him rather than running away from Him. This is the nature of my walk with Him, and oh the joys I have known in being kept safe in His loving care! I’ve seen miracles and I’ve known the efficacy of prayer. I have known trauma and deep sorrow and I have seen God work that sorrow through to joy and peace and healing. He has confirmed His presence and active work again and again. He is all.
So why am I telling all this? God came to me very early in life out of His own design for me. I didn’t do anything to warrant His attention, it was simply His own plan for my life.
My point is that an early experience in the Lord set me on a course through life that kept me, often against my own human will, safe from destruction. The truth of Beth (Psalm 119:9-16) is played out in my life. I took heed, or paid attention to and obeyed the best I could, to the Lord’s Word. I read it, contemplated it, walked it out, and I even shared it with others, faulty though this has often been. And the Lord has kept His promises.
Not a common experience. To me, “Beth” is the story of my life. And yet, it is not in God’s plan for all to be met so early in life in this way. So many have not had godly parents that took them to church, or were met at church with unkind or puzzling experiences. Perhaps what was learned in church-type environments was in direct opposition to what was experienced at home such that the truth of God was perverted. Perhaps there was no experience of God at all. What is your experience?
The psalmist, however, is not saying that if missing out on this godly experience puts one outside the call or keeping of God. By beginning with the “young man”, the psalmist is simply saying that youth is fraught with questions, molding and shaping experiences, and opportunities to choose a life course, whether for good or for bad. “How can a young [person] keep his way clean?” the psalmist begins. Youth is a time we come to realize that we are NOT clean, and we desperately want to be made so. As we grow older, we get less interested in the diagnosis or the cure on the same conscious and tender level.
Yet, the answer is the same for all. The answer to the question is the same, regardless of age or life experience: “…by taking heed to thy word!” The psalmist was not necessarily a young man when he wrote this. He is challenging all of us to direct our questions and our frustrations and failures toward the Lord though the reading of His Word; and not the reading only, but the obedience of it. We don’t just read the bible like we read a bestseller or a story book, but we read as though all life depended on it. We “hide” God’s Word in our heart; that means we tuck it away in our memory banks so that we remember it when life’s incidences come to play.
I used to think that to hide God’s Word in my heart meant that I had to memorize the verses word-for-word with chapter and verse references. While that is a singularly advantageous thing to do, it is not required. But am I thinking about what I just read? Am I asking questions? Am I applying it to my own thinking to make corrections to faulty ideas? Am I repenting of error in light of the corrective truth I read? Am I modeling what I see that is right and good from what I read? The purpose of meditating on God’s Word in this way is so that “I may not sin against [God].”
Teach me! We cannot handle the Word of God alone. That doesn’t mean we can’t read and learn and come to know God for ourselves. It does mean that we need to be under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We need to ask God to help us understand (see last blog post).
We also need to read in “community” with other believers. How has the Word of God changed them? What questions do we all share that we can dig into together and study to find the answers? We can repent together! We can experience the joy of forgiveness together! We can find correction together. Those wiser than us can advise us and we can share with those younger in the faith as well.
We are needy and we are needed.
We can delight in the Word of God together and find strength and stability for the days ahead. We will need a community of belonging, just as a song needs expression to live.
The message is clear that the earlier we come to the Word of God, the earlier we can find the stability and salvation that the Word brings. Whether we are young and life is pinging us against the guardrails, or we are middle-aged and bustled by the business of life to the point we don’t have time to think about our struggles (we just live them), or we are in old age and lonely and struggling with old sins come to life again–we can all find the truth, correction, and comfort of God’s Word.
It is never too late to cleanse one’s way, to seek Him with our whole heart, to apply His Word moment by moment, to be taught by the Holy Spirit, and to joy and delight and treasure in God’s Word “more than” any earthly treasure that we’re holding on to.
Has your youth or past been full of pain, and the following years tortured with stuffed back memories or perverted ideas about a heavenly Father? Have you given up hope that you will ever be cleansed from the pollution that has haunted you? Have you come to know Christ only to be struggling still with the years when you didn’t know him? Are you doubtful, hesitant, frustrated and puzzled? Are you fearful still?
Look carefully at the psalmist’s prayer.
Take heed and seek. Taking heed implies intensive sustained focus. To “seek” God with our “whole heart” implies the same. We will not get by in life with a casual ingestion of parables and truths. We must come hungry and thirsty to the Word of God and read for our very lives. We must be on the lookout for God’s responses to our need in the Word of God, to the truths that “are”, that we must reckon our own understanding against for correction.
Try Him. We must put what we read into practice. God says “test me and prove me in this” as God says (1 John 4:1). See what the Lord will do, not for tomorrow, but for TODAY. Sometimes it is simply the peace of God which will sustain you in hope for the tomorrow ahead. He doesn’t always take us out of our painful circumstances, but stays with us and shapes us as we walk through them so that we are not only stronger, but able to comfort others with the comfort we have been given (2 Corinthians 1:3-5). He sees you and hears the prayer of your heart. He is already at work in the heavenly places, working all things for your good, if you love Him and believe that He is able and willing to transform you into His likeness.
Turn from sinful thoughts. Others may have sinned against you, but we still must wrestle with our own sin. It may be unforgiveness and hatred of God or man. It may be self-focus. Whatever we find our sin to be, we must desire to “go and sin no more” (John 8:10-11), and if we don’t desire that (as many of us don’t), we must ask God to give us this desire and then feed ourselves on the Word of God to sustain that desire. We cannot continue to love our sin and be free of it at the same time. We must hate it as God hates it (not us, but the sin). We must ask God’s help in this. “Blessed art thou, O LORD; teach me…”
Declare it! Then we must, as verse 13 says, teach others. We must declare the truth that we find to others; we cannot afford to keep what we learn in private (Luke 8:39). We get accountability by sharing with others. Tell someone what you have learned and how God has corrected you, how He has given you hope in His promises and in His salvation. Sharing strengthens the truth in our mind and heart. It extends our new community of faith and we gain a sense of belonging that is stabilizing and comforting.
Defend it. Finally, we must defend the Word of God against all that rails against it in life. While that may include a conversational defense (2 Timothy 2:15; 3:16-17;4:2), this really means that we must defend our time with the Word of God and not let “busy-ness” come between us and our reading and praying time (Matthew 6:33). We must give high priority to the Word of God and not make light of its power.
When we counsel, do we counsel from our own thinking, or from the Word of God? When we make decisions, are we prioritizing the Word of God in its guidance as our first consultant, or are we consulting worldly powers to the exclusion of God’s principles? Are we meeting regularly with other believers to study the Word of God together (Acts 17:11), or are we in hiding from the accountability. Do we join with others in making light of the Body of Christ (the Church), castigating them for being as faulty and human as ourselves, or are we defending its honor by being an encourager and teacher of the Word (Colossians 3:12-17)? To “have respect unto thy ways” means to honor God’s ways, to set His Ways as higher than myself.
Decide for it. The Psalmist speaks in determined terms: “I [do these things]..”, “I will [do these things]…”; not as a way of bragging–“See me? I’m so good!” He speaks like this because he is setting his will deliberately toward obedience. It is not that he is already there, but he is determined to be so, with God’s help. Today is an appropriate time to choose Christ, not just for salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2), but for each step of your growth in Christ (Joshua 24:14-15). Will you?
Dear Lord, I am so grateful for your coming to me and assuring me of your reality and your kindness and love. You have guided me through life and have kept me from destruction even when I set you aside to pursue my own goals. You corrected me and I suffered under that correction but only in such a way as to bring me back to you. You are always with me, drawing me to you in love and not condemnation, thanks to your sacrifice on the cross. You are always teaching me, if I have a will to pay attention. Lord, I don’t always respect your Word, even though I want to. I don’t treasure my time with you but get distracted. I don’t speak up when I should to admonish or encourage another believer, and I do not always enjoy being admonished or encouraged by others. Teach my heart and let me be humbly, wholly, and only for my King. I set my will early this morning to be in obedience, just for today, so keep me just for today.
And Lord, for those who have not known you from a tender age, for those who have so much to overcome from their formative years, draw them to you in a special way that they may rejoice in you at this late hour as fully and as wholly as those of us who have known you from childhood. Wash all our memories with fresh assurances of your love for us now, and forgiveness for those who hurt us. Bless us as we seek you and surround us with your Church, for you place the lonely in families and the Church is your family. In gratefulness and praise to the Father, Son Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
© September 19, 2018, http://www.readpsalm119.com
“Recovering from Child Abuse: Help and Healing for Victims (Part 1)”by David Powlison, Sept 6, 2009, CCEF.org (blog post)
“Recovering from Child Abuse: Help and Healing for Victims (Part 2)”by David Powlison, Oct 8, 2009, CCEF.org (blog post)
NOTE: Child abuse can take many forms: psychological, sexual, neglect, physical, emotional, and even spiritual (e.g., perversion of the truth of God and His Word through manipulation). Abuse can happen at any age.
“All Things Bright and Beautiful” by Cecil F. Alexander, 1848
“He Careth For You” by H.B. Bengle and William J. Kirkpatrick, 1893. Sheet music PDF. (Actually, there are more than one hymn with this phrase, but I believe this to be the one I learned.)
“This is My Father’s World” by Maltbie D. Babcock, 1901. Beautifullyarranged and performed by Fernando Ortega, YouTube, published by “beanscot”