January is For Reflection

You will see the theme of reflection throughout my January posts. Last week, I mused about my reading life in 2020. Today I want to focus on using these first weeks of the new year to think and set my intentions and priorities.

I started using the first few weeks of January for reflection after reading an article in the old Victoria magazine back in the 1990s. Each January, the magazine would print a “winter journal”, focusing on different topics about the season. One year, there was an article which talked about using the quiet winter months for reflection and thought. This resonated with me, and I have viewed January as a time for thinking about the new year ever since.

Years ago, I chose September as my calendar start since it coincides with the start of school and many activities after summer vacations are done. This crisp season seems right for jumping into a new calendar.

January, on the other hand, is the time that I stop and think about priorities, values important to me, and intentions. It’s a quiet month. The holidays and their busyness are over. Often, the weather is more conducive to staying inside with a hot cup of tea than for gardening or taking walks. Even the trees are quiet with their leaves long gone and their branches stark against the sky. Birds and animals are asleep or slow this month. Even my garden is asleep, sometimes under a coverlet of snow.

So I take my direction from the rest of nature and become still inside. What is going to be important to me this year? What do I want my life to look like? How will I focus my reading? My writing? My use of time and energy?

As I ask myself these questions, slowly ideas form in my mind as to where I want to focus. I write down these big ideas, from which I will derive the quarterly, monthly, weekly, and even daily intentions that land in my planner.

Laura Vanderkam, a time management expert that I particularly admire, often talks about the importance of being intentional in using your time. There are millions of things we can choose, but we have a limited amount of time. How we want our life to look, things we want to accomplish, priorities in our spiritual, physical, emotional, and intellectual lives that we want to set–all of these are the things we use to choose how to spend our time.

I will spend the next few weeks, curled up in a comfy chair in my bookroom with pen and paper in hand, reflecting on my progress over the last year and creating or sustaining the intentions for this upcoming year. This will help me to know if I used the time I have been given wisely the next time January rolls around again.

Do you have a specific time to set your goals or intentions? Are you intentional in your use of time? I’d love to hear about your choices in the comments below.

Reflecting on My 2020 Reading

My reading journal

Now that 2020 is behind us and I’ve caught my reading journal up, I’m ready to reflect on what my reading life looked like last year. As with most other people, I have been at home a lot more than normal. While I continued to work from home for most of my regular hours, my commute shrunk to nothing for half the year and is still only a couple of times a week vs. every weekday.

Back in August, I did a reading goals check in on how my reading was going. At that point, I was reading almost 78% fiction and hoping to get to about 30%-70% nonfiction books to fiction books. I ended up reading 106 fiction and 30 nonfiction by the end of 2020. That’s 72% fiction and 28% nonfiction, which isn’t quite 30% but still the highest percentage I’ve read in recent years.

I did manage to squeeze another poetry book in, but because it was one that followed the Christmas calendar and didn’t end until Epiphany, I can’t count it for 2020. I’d like to bump the number of poetry books up to at least one a quarter or, even better, one every other month in 2021.

Audiobooks were so low–only five for the year. Losing my commute did a lot for my exercising and cooking, but killed my listening time. I ended up listening mostly to sermons and podcasts during my walks each day and dropped audiobooks altogether from March on. However, I have hopes for a better listening year in 2021. I’ve already downloaded Hilary Mantel’s third Cromwell book. I loved listening to Bring Up the Bodies on audio so I have high hopes for finishing The Mirror and the Light, too.

The biggest jump was in rereads: 64 of the 139 books I read were ones I had read before. That’s almost 50%! I put that down completely to compulsive comfort reading during the lockdown, pandemic, and political shenanigans throughout the year. I reread several mystery series, including Deborah Crombie’s Kincaid-James series and much of Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge series. At the end of the year, I gulped down many of Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Here are the books I appreciated or enjoyed this most. Many of them were nonfiction.

Voices from the Past, Volume 2: Puritan Devotional Readings, edited by Richard Rushing – The deep devotion and theology of the Puritan theologians kept me grounded during this difficult year.

Life Path: Personal and Spiritual Growth Through Journal Writing by Luci Shaw and Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton – I read both of these with a group of women and the discussions made the reading so much richer.

Beholding and Becoming: The Art of Everyday Worship by Ruth Chou Simons – The combination of the gorgeous artwork and theological truth made this a great book to read this autumn.

What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done by Matt Perman and Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport – Both of these books on living a productive life were helpful although from completely different places theologically.

Jenny Walton’s Packing for a Woman’s Journey by Nancy Lindemeyer – I had forgotten how much I loved this book. This is one of two rereads that made my best of 2020 list. It’s filled with beauty–both in writing and subject matter–and I enjoyed every essay.

My fiction reading wasn’t nearly as rich, probably because I did so much rereading for comfort. However there were a few that rose to the top:

Sorcery & Cecelia: or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede – For sheer fun, this was a winner. It’s an epistolary novel (my favorite kind!) and clever, witty, and full of the best kind of magic.

The Windsor Knot by S.J. Bennett – This mystery set in Windsor Castle and involving Queen Elizabeth II and her secretary won’t be out until March 2021, but when it comes out, read it if you love mysteries and/or the royal family. It was a fun, fun book. I sped through it in two days and wasn’t sorry at all. I’m already looking forward to the sequel.

The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin – I read the first two of The Broken Earth Trilogy last winter. They are filled with amazing world-building and an intricate plot. Now that things are settling down again, I’m ready to pick up the final book in the trilogy to see how Jemisin ties it all up. She’s inventive and clever, and I recommend these to anyone who likes science fiction/fantasy.

The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge – A reread but a very special one. This story about mental illness and new beginnings is healing and beautiful.

Last, but definitely not least was Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – I don’t know if I have the words, with which to praise this book. The plot was simple–a story about a wife of a famous man and their relationship before and after the loss of a child. It was how O’Farrell wrote it–the descriptions were lush, the characters were so well-drawn that you felt that you knew them personally, the plot of tight and held together, and the emotional punch was gut-wrenching and tear-inducing but yet I couldn’t put it down. There is a bit of magical realism and the Black Death, and Shakespeare. If you love any of those things or if you just want a “Thumping Good Read”, pick this one up.

As I reflect on my reading year in 2020, I can see gaps, but overall I’m happy with what I read last year, even if a lot of it was rereading. What was your favorite book from 2020 and what do you hope to read next?

Finding My Audience

Rural Postbox by Victor L. Doyle

For the past couple of years, I’ve been working on a book project about my grandfather’s pen and ink drawings. When he was courting my grandmother in the 1930s, they wrote letters to one another, and he always created a drawing on the envelope he sent her. He didn’t have much money, but the little piece of art he sent every few days meant more to her over time than anything he could have bought in a store. I’ve written about these envelopes here, here, and here.

As I’ve researched, organized, and written some caption drafts, gradually the project has started to organize itself. At first, I had no idea how to structure the book. I knew I wanted it to include copies of the envelopes themselves, something of my grandparent’s story, and information about the historical and cultural events depicted in the drawings.

When I began, I thought I would have to research and write about all 180 envelopes. However, after scanning and working on the first dozen or so, a form has taken shape. Using each drawing as a type of prop, I told the story of what America was like in the 1930s and, when appropriate, how my grandparents’ lives were examples of that particular piece of culture, event, or occurrence.

Now I am ready to start writing a book proposal. However, I’m hung up on who the audience should be. Would this book be attractive to readers of memoir, art historians, or people interested in America during the Depression years? Or is it more of a “coffee table” book?

One piece of advice is to find a book similar to the one you want to write and determine that book’s audience. My difficulty is that I have not found a book similar to this. Is it memoir? Kind of. Is it art history? Not really, but I suspect anyone into envelope art would be interested in it. Is it history? History-light, perhaps, as I’m not a trained historian. My day job is research, not history.

Part of marketing is knowing your target audience so that you can sell it to them. I’m not a publisher, a literary agent, or an experienced author, but even I know that you need people to buy your book if a publisher is going to take a chance on it. Therefore, part of the book proposal I will be writing in the next few months will have to include information on my target audience.

Have you written a book proposal or had to determine your target audience for your writing or another creative endeavor? How did you do it? I’d love to hear from anyone who has a great idea on how to find an audience. Or, if you have an idea on who my target audience might be, I’m all ears.

Reading and Listening – November 2020

October was a busy month. My son got married in another state, which required planning, travelling, and quarantining afterward. Then, a few days ago, I was in charge of a virtual conference that has taken a lot of time and work this past month to plan and coordinate all the moving parts.

Added to those two big things, a third big event was the reopening of library access to the public, which requires a lot more time in the library branches. I’m so happy to see and help our community again in person, albeit masked and socially distanced.

However, I have still carved out to read and listen to various articles and podcasts. Here are some of my favorites:

Reading:

Feed the Better Hunger – I used to tell my boys that taking in too much “junk food of the mind” is as bad for your brain as eating too much junk food is for your body. Glenna Marshall writes about what we should be hungering for in this article. We need to intentionally learn to love what is good for us and this article points us in the right direction.

6 Tips to Help You Tackle the Classic Novel – Anne Bogel gives six great ideas on how to read that classic from high school that you skipped. I 100% agree about trying it on audio. I finally managed to read Moby Dick several years ago by listening to the audio, and Heart of Darkness was much more manageable when read by Kenneth Branagh.

Your Devotional is Not Your Bible – As usual, Jen Wilkin encourages the reading and study of God’s Word over everything else: “Devotional writing, when done with excellence, may supplement our time in the Scriptures, but it must not subordinate or supplant it.”

The Hidden Discipline of John Stott – This is an inspiring, convicting article. If I was half as disciplined in my reading and writing as John Stott was, I’d be a first class scholar. Definitely something to aspire to!

Fact Checking Is the Core of Nonfiction Writing. Why Do So Many Publishers Refuse to Do It? – A longish article on the need for fact checking nonfiction books and the lack of industry standards. This was interesting to me as I’m currently working on a nonfiction book and anyone who is also writing nonfiction might want to give it a read. Fact checking and copy editing are not the same thing, and I had been thinking about how to make sure my facts were correct (important when you work in research for a living!) when I saw this article.

As I mentioned in my last post, I had hoped to finish Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell by the end of October and I did. I think this was my favorite fiction book in 2020. The combination of historical detail, rich characterization, an inventive plot, magical realism, and deep, deep emotions left me with a huge book hangover and food for thought for weeks. If you like Shakespeare or you like historical fiction, you will like this book.

Listening:

A podcast on the three stages of creative work: friction, flow, and finalization – At the beginning of episode 37, Cal Newport talks about how all creative work has these three stages, what each stage entails, and how to push through to complete your project. I’ve often said that writing is 25% thought, 25% drafting, and 50% editing/polishing. Even if my percentages are a bit off, it was nice to know that I’m not the only one who has noticed that the majority of the project is not the fun drafting part.

The last Help Me Teach the Bible podcast – After years of talking to Bible teachers all over the world, Nancy Guthrie is (mostly) wrapping up this podcast. She does reserve the right to do an occasional new one if she’s able to do a great interview in the future. Here’s a list of episodes by Scripture: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/help-me-teach-the-bible-episodes-by-scripture/

Now that I’m back to commuting on a regular basis, I should have more listening suggestions next month. What are you reading or listening to right now? Please share in the comments.

Reading in October

A misty October morning

Reading remains a central part of my life. As the days grow shorter and chillier, I plan more and more time to curl up in my reading chair and crack open a book. Sometimes I choose a new one to enjoy, but oftentimes, especially in autumn, I long to visit with old, familiar friends. I get up and wander to my bookshelves to decide where I want to go.

Do I want to travel to Bath with Anne Elliot in Persuasion by Jane Austen, as I often do in October? Or should I start the academic year once again with Miss Read in Village School, a favorite comfort read? Sometimes only poetry will do and in autumn, I prefer Christina Rossetti’s melancholy, reflective poetry over cheerier stuff.

For lighter reading, I peruse old issues of my all-time favorite magazine, Victoria. Not the new issues, mind, but the original articles and photographs from the 1990’s when the magazine was young and lyrical and full of beautiful things. I miss it still. Afterwards, wanting more, I’ll pick up a book of essays by the original editor of Victoria, Nancy Lindemeyer, and read one before bed each night for sweet dreams.

Murder mysteries are always my favorite, of course, and if I’m going to reread one in October, it is almost always Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers. Attending Oxford was always a dream of mine, but at this time of my life, my student days are over so I accompany Harriet as revisits her university days.

My reading has slowed down a bit now that the library branches are open to the public again and I’ve added a commute back into my life. However, since I’m still limiting my social media to selected times, I have plenty of time to read if I choose to do so. Here is the list of books I read in October:

Three ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies):

  • The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth – I loved her book The Mother-in-Law and this one did not disappoint.
  • The Lost Village – a mystery set in a remote Scandanavian village, where a group of filmmakers investigates the disappearance of the entire population decades ago. Creepy, borderline horror, but I just had to know what happened to them.
  • The Windsor Knot – I loved this mystery about the Queen of England, her assistant secretary, and their investigation of a murder at Windsor Castle. I’m already anticipating the sequel even though the first isn’t yet released. Highly recommend for people who like intelligent cozy-type mysteries.

Rereads:

  • The Hollow by Agatha Christie – I didn’t think I had read this one until about three chapters in, I remembered who did it but not all the plot points to uncovering the culprit. Not her best, but still, a Hercules Poirot mystery is always fun.
  • Still Life by Louise Penny – the first in Penny’s Armand Gamache series, set in autumn.
  • Jenny Walton’s Packing for a Woman’s Journey by Nancy Lindemeyer – essays that Lindemeyer wrote for Victoria magazine while she was the editor. They are full of home, family, and old-fashioned joys.

New to me:

Beyond the Gates by Dorothy Evelyn Smith – I read about this on the Stuck in a Book blog, where I always find lovely older books and authors that I’ve only vaguely heard of. Beyond the Gates is about an orphan named Lydia, who is terrified to go out into the world from the orphanage where she’s always lived. She is hired by a family, who takes her into their home, and she learns how to live in a new place. It’s a quiet book without much action, but the characters were real to me. The book was very English in its tone and descriptions. Written in 1956, it is a book of its time, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Newer books:

  • Murder at the Mena House by Erica Ruth Neubauer – the first in a cozy series, set in 1920’s Egypt. A young American widow discovers the body of a young socialite in a posh Egyptian hotel. In order to clear her own name, she investigates with the help of a mysterious stranger.
  • The Last Flight by Julie Clark – two women, fleeing from their pasts, trade plane tickets and flights. When one of the planes crashes, killing everyone on board, the woman still alive is stuck between identities. This was a great thriller and kept me turning pages long past my bedtime.
  • Books Can Be Deceiving by Jenn McKinlay – a librarian, a murder, writers, and libraries are all part of this first in a cozy mystery series. It was a quick read, and I enjoyed all the bookish, library details.

Books that I am currently reading and will finish by October 31:

Village School by Miss Read – a village schoolteacher talks about her school, English village life, and the children in this charming book from an earlier era. (Re-read)
Hamnet by Maggie O’Ferrell – I can’t express how much I am loving this book about Shakespeare’s wife and children, the tragedy that occurred, and how it might have happened in real life. Full of rich historical detail, some magical realism, and characters you will love, most especially Agnes (aka Anne Hathaway).
Beholding and Becoming by Ruth Chou Simons – a book about how to live each day, worshipping God, with gorgeous drawings of the natural world and calligraphy on most pages. Full review to follow once I’m done reading.

I’m still working my way through Union with Christ by Randy Wilbourne. There are so many good points, but I need to think about it as I read so am going slowly to ponder the richness of what it means to live out of union with Christ.

I’m also still working my way through Life Path by Luci Shaw with a group of friends. This is my first time reading this wonderful book on spiritual journaling, but I know that I will return to it again and again as it’s filled with nuggets of truth and prompts for thinking and writing about life.

I’ve not finished as much nonfiction this month because so much of my reading is in the evening when I’m often too tired to comprehend meaty books, but I’m still satisfied with my October reading.

What have you read this month? Were there any particularly fabulous stories or edifying books you can tell us about in the comments?

A Writer’s Notebook

Keeping a private journal or notebook is essential for many writers. Virginia Woolf, W.H. Auden, Madeleine L’Engle, Anais Nin, Susan Sontag, and many others wrote regularly in a notebook, journal, or diary. These private places allow writers to work through ideas, grow in their writing, muse on the world around them, and capture snippets of conversation, turns of phrase, and other bits and pieces they notice in daily life. Notebooks can also contain the outline for a new book or article, lists of words, themes in formation, and more.

Madeleine L’Engle wrote, I have advice for people who want to write. I don’t care whether they’re 5 or 500…if you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair.”

A few ideas of what to your notebook can contain:

  • Keep a record of your thoughts and ideas and life as they change and grow.
  • Gather words, phrases, pictures, poems, images, quotes, articles, and more for your future writing.
  • Reflect on things in a safe, private place.
  • Record events, feelings, conversations, reactions, words, and more so that you don’t forget. We tend to rewrite our past thoughts and feelings in light of our current circumstances. I am often a bit shocked by what I was actually thinking and feeling in a past time, but I cannot deny those things if they are in my journal in black and white.
  • Writing regularly with no thought of grammar or style keeps a writer’s creativity flowing and captures fleeting ideas that might have been lost if they were thinking too carefully about them.

But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, and thus have to lay hands on words, choose them and shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink. I believe that during the past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my casual half hours after tea.

Virginia Woolf

Whether you keep a digital or paper notebook, whether you write it in at a certain time of day or scribble in it sporadically, do find a way to capture the glimpses of life and love and thought and feeling before they are lost.

Here are a few books and an article for inspiration and help in keeping such a journal:

A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf, excerpts about writing from her diaries, selected by her husband Leonard Woolf

A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

“On Keeping A Notebook”, Joan Didion’s essay in her book Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Do you keep a writer’s journal? Do you prefer a digital notebook or a paper notebook that you can stick in your pocket? I’d love to hear how you capture your ideas and noticings.

Reading and Listening – October Edition

Here is just a sampling of what I’ve been reading and listening to this past month.

Reading

I love the idea of a bullet journal, and I do use the method for my book journal. However, I like having a planner with all of my goals built in, a journal for books and reading, a notebook for notes, and a journal for quotes, prayers, thoughts, processing, etc. It works better for me. So many people love the bullet journal method that I may try again one of these years. Here are two articles on Bullet Journaling that came up in my reading this month for those of you who want to give it a try. If you do, I’d love to hear how it goes.

Can Bullet Journaling Save You

Anne Bogel’s experience with her bullet journal

I enjoy reading Cal Newport’s work, and this is his take on how to carve out time for creative work:

Getting Creative Things Done: How to Fit Hard Thinking into a Busy Schedule

I love Agatha Christie’s novels and thought I had read them all until I found this list recently. If I had ever read The Mystery of the Blue Train, I didn’t remember it at all. Are there any titles on the list that you want to try?

Agatha Christie’s Top 20 Novels

This article reminded me of the discussions I used to have with my children about the importance of what they read and watched. The things we take in eventually come out in our living, our words, and our actions as well as in our writing and artistic pursuits. What are you taking into your mind and heart these days?

Shoveling Mulch onto the Leaf Mold of the Mind

Listening:

I love mysteries and some of my favorite titles are in the Inspector Gamanche series by Louise Penny. It was a joy to hear some of my favorite podcasters talk about how much they love them, too.

Episode 96 of Out of the Ordinary

Rarely does a week go by when I don’t listen to a podcast or lecture on theology or the Bible. One of my favorites apps is from Ligonier.org because of all of the great content. Recently, I’ve been listening to Dr. Derek Thomas’s series on Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s not my first time listening to it and it won’t be my last, but every time I listen, I learn something new about Scripture, about Bunyan, and about our God. It’s a bit pricy, but you can watch the first lecture for free on the site and then wait for the series to go on sale. I always get the audio download so I can listen on my app on the go, but there is also a CD and DVD.

The Pilgrim’s Progress: A Guided Tour

I appreciate Karen Swallow Prior’s books and after reading On Reading Well, I sometimes wished I could take a literature class with her. While that’s not a possibility, I found a way to listen to her wise insights when she was a guest host on a literature podcast I enjoy, Close Reads. She and two other literature lovers and teachers walked through Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. If you don’t like Jane Austen, try one of the other books they’ve read through together. I’ve discovered some new favorites, and I bet you will, too. Here’s a link to the first episode:

Please share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments, if you found any of these links interesting or helpful.

A Satisfying Reading Life

Image by Jose Antonio Alba from Pixabay

When you consider your reading life, it’s not the number of books that counts but the satisfaction you have in the books that you are reading. For instance, if you read 50 books in a year, but you didn’t like 90% of them, then your reading life isn’t going to make you happy even if you did read a book a week. On the other hand, if you read only 20 books, but they are books you’ve been longing to read, you delighted in each one, and you thought long and hard about them days after finishing, then you have a rich reading life.

This year, I have been fortunate to have a satisfying reading life. Since I’ve mostly been working from home and so have no commute, I achieved my 2020 Goodreads goal of 75 books with three months to spare. Of the 16 books I read since my last check-in, six were nonfiction and ten were fiction. Thus, over a third of books I’ve read this year has been nonfiction, which is a great improvement over last year. The memoirs I read this past month were memorable—Maya Angelou, Ruth Reichl, and Anthony Doerr all had interesting tales to tell in very different ways. Reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings made me simultaneously sad and angry for the child Maya was. Living in Rome for a year with Anthony Doerr was a delight to the senses. My mother and I always loved reading Gourmet magazines, and my mother introduced me to the joys of reading about food. I still love to cook and to read about cooking so Reichl’s memoir of her years at Gourmet was a treat to lose myself in, especially since Reichl included a recipe for a chocolate cake that I must make one of these days.

If I can finish two theology books and fit in a book of poetry before the end of December, I will be pleased with this year’s reading , even if I finish nothing else. Add in a book by one of the Puritan theologians though, and my pleasure will turn to delight.

Currently, I am still reading Union with Christ by Rankin Wilbourne and have Gospel & Kingdom by Graeme Goldsworthy, a Biblical Theology book recommended by Nancy Guthrie, to start next. I’m two thirds through a reread of September by Rosamund Pilcher. I’ve always loved her long novels and have never reread this one. Since she has a long novel that seems to fit each season—September for fall, Winter Solstice for winter, Coming Home for spring, and The Shell Seekers for summer—I’m toying with the idea of reading one each season over the next year. Even if I don’t, I am still enjoying the foray into Scotland this month. October is a month for rereading Persuasion, which I will probably bring with me when travel to my son’s wedding. There’s something autumn-like and reflective about Austen’s novel of second chances.

A hold from the library just came in for me this week: The 5 AM Club by Robin Sharma. I’m an early riser myself so am looking forward to any new tips she may have on how to make the best use of my mornings. I’m I’m about halfway through Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on audio for my October book group. It has been good to view my country and culture through the eyes of someone so different from me in every way.

Overall, my reading life is just grand. How satisfied are you with your reading life?

The Darkness of the Dungeon

Image by Evgeni Tcherkasski from Pixabay

Last week I was reading a blog post by a friend, in which she said that she was feeling that rock bottom has a basement. The definition of rock bottom is the “lowest of the low.” Yet my friend felt that life had managed to go even lower than the lowest possible place.

In Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, Christian and his friend Hopeful are caught by Giant Despair and put in his dark dungeon. There they lay for three days, terrified and without hope. They were also in the basement of rock bottom.

In Psalm 88, the Psalmist is also in that place beyond the lowest low:

You have put me in the depths of the pit,

in the regions dark and deep.

Your wrath lies heavy upon me,

and you overwhelm me with all your waves. vv. 6-7

In fact, unlike the other Psalms that start in despair and end up on a positive note, Psalm 88 ends:

You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;

my companions have become darkness. v. 18

The alternative meaning in Hebrew is darkness has become my only companion. The Psalmist has no hope left. There is nothing for him. He is in the black dungeon of Giant Despair. He’s with my friend in the basement of rock bottom.

If we left him (and Christian and my friend and us) there in that dungeon, then what would be the reason to go on? Where is there hope for the Psalmist or for any of us?

This man feels that God is against him, that there is nothing in life that’s good, that his soul is full of trouble, that he has no strength, that he has been forgotten by God, that his friends have all abandoned him and view him as a horror, that the only companion, the only friend he has is darkness, and that the only place lower is death.

However (praise the Lord, there is a however), despite all of these feelings and circumstances of darkness and feeling forgotten by God, the Psalmist still cries out to God, he still has the small kernel of faith that looks to God in the darkness and believes that He hears and that He cares.

Jesus says, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. (Matthew 17:20)

In our dark places, the tiny seed of faith that the Lord has given us strengthens us to turn to Him, the Light of the World, and cry out, pleading with Him for light, for hope, for salvation. When we are in the dark, we need only to remember to look for the light.

Despite the seeming hopelessness in this Psalm and in our lives, there are glimmers of light if we look closely enough. The glimmers of God’s promises:

  • He will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5)
  • Even if a mother could forget her nursing child, God will never forget us (Isaiah 49:15)
  • We are inscribed on the palms of His hands (Isaiah 49:16)
  • He will with us in the waters and walk with us in the fire (Isaiah 43: 2)
  • He has loved us with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3)
  • He rejoices over us with singing. (Zephaniah 3:17)

As we focus on these promises, even if the circumstances are still hard and our road seems endlessly black, we begin to see the glory of our Father’s face shine out in the gloom, the fingers of sun gleaming through the cracks of the dungeon walls, and to believe again in His love poured out for us in Christ. We start to grasp that if God is for us, which He is in Christ, who could be against us. We take shelter in His love and in His protection. And we take hold of the glorious truth that Christ is sufficient and will always be sufficient for all our needs, no matter what is occurring in this world. If we have Christ, then we have eternity and glory and unfailing love from our God.

Charitie Lees Bancroft wrote:

When Satan tempts me to despair

and tells me of the guilt within,

upward I look and see him there,

who made an end to all my sin.

Because the sinless Savior died,

my sinful soul is counted free;

for God, the just, is satisfied

to look on him and pardon me,

to look on him and pardon me.

Christ has become wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption for us. (I Corinthians 1:30) If He has done all this, how will He not also give us all things. (Romans 8:31)

As Christian lay in the dungeon, he prayed and the Lord reminded him of the promises of God, and these promises were the key that allowed Christian and Hopeful to escape into the sunshine. My friend, too, acknowledged that God’s light still shines even when it is clouded over by life’s circumstances and she can’t see it at that moment.

What about you, friend? Are you in the darkness of the basement of rock bottom? Do you feel abandoned, forgotten, and alone in your hard times? Can you see no hope and no light and no escape?

Go to Jesus. He loved you enough to die for you, He stands at the throne of God and pleads your case, He will give you all that you need to walk with Him in this life, and He will come and take you home to be with Him, basking in the sunshine of His love for eternity.