The Book of Psalms: Words of Comfort and Hope…from God…to You

First, a disclaimer: this post technically doesn’t have anything to do with homeschooling.  And yes, it is about the Bible.  So if you are only on this site because you want to know about homeschooling, I suggest you check out some of my previous posts listed in the right sidebar.  As my regular readers know, at least 95% of my posts are specifically related to homeschool advice, ideas and encouragement – such as my most recent post “9 Helpful Hints for a (Relatively) Happy Homeschool.”  So if that’s what you’re looking for – dive in, there’s plenty to keep you busy.

By the same token, if you don’t like when people talk about the Bible or share their personal religious beliefs, you might want to check out some of my previous posts or series, such as my “Getting Started” series or my “How To Teach Math, Reading, and Writing” series.

As I said, rarely do I stray from homeschooling topics, but occasionally I feel inspired to share something non-homeschool related which I believe is informative or enlightening.  Other times I feel led to share a personal experience that just might help my readers in a different way.  And when that happens, I do go off-topic.  But you can be sure I’ll be back to homeschooling topics soon.  In fact, I have a long list of post ideas to get to.   But in the meantime, I want to talk about my favorite book of the Bible: the book of Psalms.

Why the book of Psalms?  Because I believe there’s probably not a single issue that our hearts struggle with that is not addressed, in some way, in the Psalms.

In my adult life I have read through the entire Bible multiple times.  For many years, for my personal Bible reading, I would simply begin in Genesis and read straight through.  And when I finished at the book of Revelation, I’d just start all over again.

But time and time again, when I would be going through a particularly difficult season in my life, the Holy Spirit would prompt me to delve into the book of Psalms.  And without fail, I would be comforted and strengthened.

The book of Psalms is a collection of prayers and songs that were used during times of worship in the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as in the Tabernacle before the Temple was built.  While scholars will continue to debate the actual authors, dates of authorship, etc. there is no doubt that many of the Psalms were composed by David.  Other authors were members of the Levitical priesthood.  The Levites were responsible for the care of the Tabernacle and the Temple and the ceremonies that pertained to them.  So it is understandable that they would have authored many of the Psalms.  Some of the Psalms were written to commemorate an event in the life of the king.  Often these commemorative Psalms have a prophetic quality, since the Messiah who was to come would be a descendant of King David.  In fact, on the cross Jesus quotes several times from the Psalms.  And Psalm 22:14-18 describes Christ’s crucifixion clearly.

But most of the Psalms are simply a cry from the heart of man, to the heart of God.  And time and again, God answers.  Often, in Psalm 13 for example, the Psalmist begins with an anguished cry for help, and then concludes with a declaration of praise for “he has been good to me.” (vs. 6)

In my own life, whether it was a time of extended illness or personal tragedy, I would be prompted by the Holy Spirit to go back to the Psalms, and they have never failed to give me peace or comfort or courage.

And I don’t just read the book of Psalms but I also underline words and phrases that strike to the heart of what I am feeling.  I write in the margins.  In fact, I have gone through several Bibles in my adult life – they eventually fall apart from use – and looking back through them I see actual dates next to verses that spoke to me at that point in my life.  To me these markings are like commemorative stones, they are a legacy for me of God’s faithfulness.  And maybe someday they will be a legacy for my children – they will be able to look through them to see how God spoke to me at difficult times in my life.

For example, I just pulled an old NIV Study Bible (my favorite version – in fact the Bible that I use now is another NIV Study Bible that my husband gave me for Christmas two years ago).  In my old NIV, with the cover that is falling off and that is covered from beginning to end with notes and markings and reflections, I can see that I used it at one time – probably about 20 years ago – to make some notes about homeschool plans for my two oldest children, who were very young then.  I find a note on Psalm 9 dated May 19, 1989 that says that I was praising God for his gift of healing.  At that time I was dealing with an extended illness that began with my second pregnancy and lasted long after I had given birth to my son.  My praise at that time was in faith that I would recover.  And I did – though later – twelve years ago in fact – I became ill again and have been chronically ill ever since.  But through the years of this illness I have again gone to the Psalms many times for comfort.

In another NIV Bible that I used for many years I find memories of the most difficult and trying years of my life.  As there are in many Bibles, there are pages in the front of this Bible to list births, special events, and deaths.  On that last page I find a record of my brother’s death in 1997 when he was killed by a drunk driver.  That day changed my life forever.  If you have ever experienced that kind of tragedy you know what I mean.  And if you haven’t, well I hope you never do.  Taped on the page, under the notation where I marked my brother’s death, is a cut-out from the newspaper.  My parents had put a little note in the obituary section of their paper marking the one-year anniversary of my brother’s death.  It says, “Always remembered, always missed.”  The darkness of the days, weeks, months and years following my brother’s death is impossible to describe.  I would wake every morning and go to bed every night crying.  Any time I was alone I would cry.  I would cry for hours if I found myself alone for that long (which was rare).  But I needed it.  Because the rest of my days were filled with caring for my three children who were depending on me, and I couldn’t fall apart in front of them.  So I fell apart when I was alone.

I have notes in the Psalms, with dates, from the months and years before my brother’s death and after.  One verse, Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”  Next to it I have a note that says, “This is how I feel,” and it’s dated October 7, 1998 – a little over a year after my brother’s death.

The effects of my brother’s death were unpredictable.   I had never gone through an experience like this and didn’t know what to expect or how to deal with the trauma my heart was experiencing.  In the year after my brother’s death I began to have anxiety attacks.  In fact, for years after my brother’s death I would begin experiencing severe anxiety about a month or so before the anniversary of his death.  It took me a long time to figure out the connection.  Our brains are strange in how they remember and deal with events in our lives.

It certainly didn’t help matters when 18 months after my brother’s death my cousin Paul died of a rare blood disorder, at the age of 35, leaving behind a wife and 3-month old baby.  Paul was more like a brother than a cousin.  In fact, I have a lot of cousins like that because I grew up in a large, but very tight-knit, extended family on my mother’s side.  I have cousins that grew up a block away from me.  Paul’s family lived a little further away, in Hialeah (I grew up in Miami) but we spent every birthday and every holiday together for our entire childhoods.  Paul and I had a special spiritual connection as well.  In fact, when he was very ill at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, I took a week away from my family and visited with him.  I spent every day with him in the hospital that week.  Sometimes his wife would leave their tiny baby with me so she could go get something to eat, and I would rock the baby in the stroller while Paul slept and I prayed.  How I prayed.  One of the days I was there he was awake enough for us to have a very special conversation about the Lord.  It was too private to share but the memory will stay with me for the rest of my life.

When he died it was like the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  It not only broke my spirit but my body as well.  It’s the reason that I have been chronically ill for twelve years.  Less than a year after Paul died, I came down with what I thought was the flu, but I never got better.  Months of doctors’ visits and tests produced no answers.  Through research on my own I came to believe that the emotional trauma of my brother’s and cousin’s deaths had burned out my adrenal glands.  In fact, I’m firmly convinced that I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but in spite of my seeking help from at least two professional counselors, they never saw it.  I know many get help from counseling but sadly, my experience was quite different.

In any case, as I researched I began to take various supplements: vitamins, herbs, enzymes – dozens of supplements designed to help with specific issues I had related to adrenal burnout.  Unfortunately, adrenal burnout is not easily treated, especially if it is not diagnosed early, and mine wasn’t.  To this day I take handfuls of supplements every day so that I can simply function.  So that I can get out of bed and care for my family.  Because for about two years I was virtually bedridden.

Oh, did I tell you that in the middle of all this, at 40 years of age, I gave birth to my youngest child?  Between my illness and a difficult pregnancy, for more than two years the only time I left the house was for doctor’s appointments and maybe, if I had the energy, to go to the grocery store.

And during that time I turned to the Psalms again and again.  Almost in desperation, you might say.  I was emotionally drowning and the book of Psalms was my anchor.  I clung to it with all my might.

Over the years God taught me many things about himself.  About grief and loss.  My faith was utterly challenged by my brother’s death.  And when my cousin Paul died after I had spent so many hours in prayer for his healing, my soul cried out, “Why God?  Why?!”

For the record, I’ve heard many Christians say that we shouldn’t ask God “why.”  I’ve heard Christians, very respected Christians, say it’s pointless to ask God “why?”  But on the cross Jesus himself cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  You can find that in the Gospels, of course, but it’s worth pointing out here that Jesus was actually quoting Psalm 22:1.  Think about it: Jesus knew why He came here.  He knew why He was hanging on that cross.  Yet He still cried out “why?”  And I believe it was, at least partly, to let us know that it is okay to ask why.  We may never get the answer in this life but that doesn’t mean we can’t, or shouldn’t, ask.

The faith I have today in God is due to dealing with the intense grief and loss of those years.  It’s a completely different faith than I had before.  It would take too long to explain it in detail.  But I now have a truly personal faith.  I know God in a deeper way than I could have ever imagined.

Does that mean that life has been somehow easier?  Hardly.  Because in the front of that same Bible where I noted my brother’s death I have another notation.  One that I can’t look at, even all these years later, without bursting into tears.  It is a memoriam for my niece, Amanda, who was killed in a traffic accident on April 11, 2008.  She was 19 years old.

The afternoon I got the news from my dad about Amanda’s death – another horrible telephone call so reminiscent of the one I had received about my brother almost ten years earlier – I called my husband to tell him of the accident, and called my daughter to simply tell her to come home (I didn’t want to share this terrible news with her at that moment because I knew she was driving somewhere).  And then I went into my bedroom, laid myself flat out on the floor, and begged God to let it be a mistake.  I cried and begged with all my might.  But it wasn’t a mistake.

You know, there are some days when I think that I have learned to “accept” my brother’s and my cousin’s deaths.  It’s a fallacy, of course, as I am reminded whenever I unexpectedly hear a certain song that reminds me of one of them.  Or I see a picture in a photo album in the days when we were all so young and alive.  I can quite easily get caught unaware when I stumble across a photo of either of them, and that all-too-familiar gut-wrenching feeling of loss brings the tears rushing to my eyes.  They were both so handsome, and sweet, and I love them so much.

When it comes to dealing with Amanda’s death, however, I have never even imagined that I could ever accept her death.  Maybe to some that means that my faith is weak in some way.  I really don’t care what anyone thinks when it comes to my personal grief.  You can’t walk this journey for me, only I can.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve already dealt with too much tragedy, and my heart simply isn’t capable of processing another.  Or perhaps it’s because I watched that precious little girl grow up from the day of her birth.  My sister’s three oldest children and my two oldest children were all born within four years of each other.  Yes, I said that these five cousins were born in the course of just four years!  In fact, when I was barely pregnant with my oldest son – and still suffering from all-day sickness – I flew with my daughter, who was two years old, to my sister’s house in Corpus Christi, TX (where her husband was stationed in the Navy) to stay with her 18-month son, while she went into the hospital to give birth to Amanda.  I held that little girl the day she was born.  I changed her diapers and played with her and watched her grow into a beautiful young woman.  Beautiful physically, yes, but also beautiful spiritually.  And I loved her with all my heart and soul.  And I can’t deal with her death still.  That’s just the way it is.

I had thought there wasn’t any part of my heart left to be broken until Amanda died.  But I found out that I was wrong.

I don’t know how it is for other Christians, but as for myself, I agree with what the apostle Paul said in Philippians 1:21 – “To live is Christ, to die is gain.”  I don’t live this Christian life perfectly by any means, but it is my goal to live in a way that pleases God and that, especially, prepares my children for a life lived with Him – in this life, and into eternity.

But I can’t wait to set aside this earthly body that I have to constantly maintain with my regimen of supplements and exercise, to step into the next life where I will see Him face to face.  Where I will finally embrace my loved ones – not only my brother Bobby and my cousin Paul and my niece Amanda, but also my dad who passed away 14 months after Amanda’s death.  And my grandparents – I never even knew either of my grandfathers because they both died when my parents were young.  I will see my cousin Jeff who was 22 when he died in a rock-climbing accident and my cousin Bridgette who died of leukemia at the age of 39.  I have so many relatives who have passed away that it will be quite a family reunion.

I am going to tell you a little story that I have never told anyone.  You may think it sounds weird, and I don’t share it lightly.  But before I relate my story I need to tell you something right up front for clarification.  As much as our hearts may long to reconnect with loved ones who have gone before us, the Bible makes it very clear that we are not to attempt to contact the dead.  (Leviticus 20:27)  The Bible is adamant that this practice is completely forbidden.  This means that we should steer clear of any of these types of associations, including watching television programs that feature “mediums” who claim to be able to contact the dead.  Our modern culture often embraces a “spirituality” that is not biblically sound.  So, once again, I want to be clear that I abide by the Bible’s instruction that mediums are not to be consulted, ever.

That being said, after my brother’s death I began to understand the longing I would hear in the voice of someone who had lost a close loved one.  I began to understand the stories that my great-aunt had related to me after my grandmother died.  My grandmother and my “Beba” (as we called her) were twin sisters who, because my great-aunt never married, had lived together most of their lives.  After my grandmother’s death, I would occasionally help Beba by driving her around so she could get to the grocery store and take care of other errands.  One day I was visiting with her in the house she had shared with my grandmother for decades.  She told me she had had a vision of my grandmother walking with Jesus in their backyard.  My grandmother had looked straight at her and said, “Don’t worry, I’m with Him now.”  It still gives me chills to think about.  My Beba was a godly woman, so I had no reason to doubt that God had indeed given her a vision to comfort her.  In fact, when she told me the story it was very reminiscent of the Apostle Paul’s description of being taken into the “third heaven.”  (2 Corinthians 12:2)  When Beba shared her story she said she didn’t even know if she was awake or asleep when she had her vision!  But she remembered it vividly.

Beba also told me that she would often walk into a room and start to talk to my grandmother, only to remember that she was no longer with her.  Beba died only a few months after my grandmother.  She had no apparent illness.  I firmly believe she died of a broken heart.

But that is my great-aunt’s story, not my story, the one I have not told anyone until now.

Through the years of experiencing numerous deaths in my family I have come to believe that God may very well send our deceased family members to us, to accompany us on our final journey.  Don’t ask me to quote chapter and verse on that.  It’s simply something I have heard on too many occasions.  For instance, when one of my aunts was dying of cancer, in the weeks before her death she said that she often saw her sister, my aunt Terri, who had died 14 years earlier.  I certainly believe God sends angels to accompany us Home.  There are numerous accounts in the Bible, and in recorded literature, of people seeing angels during times of great difficulty or when they are nearing death.

In my case, I had an experience a few months ago that was, for me, very beautiful.  I was in my house late at night, and I was walking through the hallway to my bedroom when I heard or sensed something.  Now, I realize it could have been anything.  And the truth is I don’t know what it was.  What I do know is that when I got this feeling of having heard or sensed something, the thought flew into my head – “it’s Bobby – he’s come to take me Home!”  Bobby is my deceased brother.  Why I thought that, I don’t know, but as soon as that thought came into my mind I experienced a joy that I can’t describe.  Elation would probably be the best way to describe it.  There was no sense of fear at all, only pure joy.  And then it was gone.  The whole experience, from the time I “sensed” something and had the thought that it was my brother come to take me Home, along with the brief but profound feeling of joy, probably lasted only ten seconds.  But it was wonderful.  Like a taste – just a little taste – of the ecstasy I will experience when the time comes for my Savior to speak my name and for me to step into the next life.  A life in which I have been promised there are no more tears, only unending joy – where there is a “room” that Jesus has prepared especially for me.  (John 14:2)

I look forward with longing to that day.  But in the meantime, I have His Word.  And especially, I have the Psalms.

Recently I’ve been going through a tough time.  I’ve been having a hard time physically, after dealing with an acute illness that I am very glad to say I have recovered from.  However, the illness itself, along with the doctor’s visits and the tests and the crazy insomnia that took over my body, really took the wind out of my sails and I’ve been experiencing debilitating fatigue for months now.  I’ve been dealing with emotional issues as well.

And a couple of weeks ago the Holy Spirit whispered to me again, “Go back to the Psalms.”

So I did.  And once again I am writing in the margins of my Bible and underlining and dating verses.  God is speaking to me in a powerful way – just what I need to hear now – dealing with what I am struggling with in this season of my life.

I don’t know about you, but I hate going through hard times.  I remember once hearing a woman talk on the radio about how God allows the hard times in our lives to “build our character.”  Then she made a remark that made me laugh, because I so understood where she was coming from.  She said, “I’d rather be shallow.”

Now, of course, she was being facetious.  Or at least partly.  But I get it.  I’ve often thought that myself, “Lord, couldn’t you just let my life be easy?  I wouldn’t mind being shallow.”  But that’s not how the Christian life works.  One thing I have learned is that true Christianity always has a cross.  So if we’re not paying some kind of price to live the Christian life, maybe our Christianity isn’t all that authentic.

And so, I recommend, if you haven’t guessed it already, that if you are going through a tough time – open the Psalms.  It doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle of some Bible study at your church or other group, or your own personal Bible study, and it would get things “out of order.”  Just read a chapter or two a day.  In fact, if you find a Psalm that speaks to you particularly, re-read it…and re-read it again.  Let it soak into your spirit.

Perhaps the book of Psalms will become your favorite book of the Bible as well.

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  • CG

    Wow. I decided to check your website real quick at work and started reading this beautiful post. Thank you for sharing your heart. I love you. 

    • annegalivan

      Thanks sweetie!  I love you too!

  • Jill

    Colette’s facebook page led me to this.  Incredibly moving – especially since I can relate to the struggles concerning the people you have mentioned.  Thank you for sharing.

    • annegalivan

      Jill: 

      Thanks for taking the time to read this and respond.  I know so often people don’t realize the fall-out that can come with losing a loved one, and it can be very lonely.  I want you to know you’re not alone – I think of Jeff often as well as my brother, niece, and the other family members who left us too soon.  I’m glad this post could touch you and I hope it helps you in a some way.

  • Sara Johnson

    Wow, Mrs. Anne, this is beautiful! Thank you for sharing!

    • annegalivan

      Thank you dear!  Hope you and the family are doing well.  Your family has been in my prayers.  (Tell your mom I said “hi!”)