I invite you to take your Bible and turn with me to Psalm 31. If you’re using the pew Bible in front of you, it’s on page 461. This is a longer psalm, but a powerful psalm in that it not only shows us the rescue of God, but it shows us what we need to be rescued from in ways that we don’t normally think about. And frankly, in ways that when we do think about what we do need to be rescued from, we tend to turn away quickly. So let’s give our attention to God’s Word. Psalm 31:
“A PSALM OF DAVID.
In you, O Lord, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me! Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily! Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me!
For you are my rock and my fortress, and for your name's sake you lead me and guide me; you take me out of the net they have hidden for me, for you are my refuge. Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.
I hate those who pay regard to worthless idols, but I trust in the Lord. I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love because you have seen my affliction; you have known the distress of my soul, and you have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy; you have set my feet in a broad place.
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away.
Because of all my adversaries, I have become a reproach, especially to my neighbors, and an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. I have been forgotten like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel. For I hear the whispering of many – terror on every side! – as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.
But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hand; rescue me from the hand of my enemies and from my persecutors! Make your face shine on your servant; save me in your steadfast love! O Lord, let me not be put to shame, for I call upon you; let the wicked be put to shame; let them go silently to Sheol. Let the lying lips be mute, which speak insolently against the righteous in pride and contempt.
Oh, how abundant is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you and worked for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of the children of mankind! In the cover of your presence, you hide them from the plots of men; you store them in your shelter from the strife of tongues.
Blessed be the Lord, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me when I was in a besieged city. I had said in my alarm, ‘I am cut off from your sight.’ But you heard the voice of my pleas for mercy when I cried to you for help.
Love the Lord, all you his saints! The Lord preserves the faithful but abundantly repays the one who acts in pride. Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord!”
This is God’s Word. Would you please join me in prayer?
Father, we so desperately need the ministry of Your Holy Spirit within our hearts today. We confess that apart from Your Holy Spirit, these words will remain words on a page or words spoken by a man. But by the power, the agency of Your Spirit, You will cut deeply into our hearts and we pray that You would. Cause us to find Your Word sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing deeply, even to the division of soul and spirit, and able to judge the thoughts and motivations of our hearts. Do that for Your glory and for our eternal good, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
One of my favorite commentaries on the Psalms is the one written by James Montgomery Boice, who is now with the Lord. And when he comes to Psalm 31, the one we’ve just read, he says this is one of the most difficult psalms to outline. As a matter of fact, no two writers agree on what the divisions and the proper flow and focus ought to be of this psalm. It’s as if the psalmist is wrestling within himself and records his words as he goes from despair to joy, from despondency to hope, from brokenness and darkness to the light of joy. And he doesn’t signal when he’s shifting from one to the other; it’s this complex of things that, goodness, when you think about it, it’s us that he’s writing about, isn’t it? But there’s a clue to figuring out how we’re to think about this psalm. Our choir just sang the last words of David, the servant of God, the king of Israel. And we pay very careful attention to a person’s last words before he expires. Now think about Jesus. When He hung on the cross, naked, literally naked – this is how Romans executed those whom they wanted to humiliate – hangs on the cross, covered in all of our sin and guilt and shame, having become our guilt, our sin, and our shame, as He hangs there with His final breath before He dies, of all the Scripture He’s memorized and has quoted, He quotes this psalm, verse 5, when He says, “Into your hand I commit my spirit.”
Now the scholars will tell us that when the New Testament writers, and when Jesus Himself quotes the Old Testament, He’s not just pointing to that one phrase; they’re pointing to the context from which it comes. And what that means is that this psalm, in particular, is giving us an inside look at what’s taking place in the inward experience of the Lord Jesus Himself as the man of sorrows hangs on the cross, the man who has become our shame. We’ve grown accustomed to singing the words of the hymn, these words, “Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned He stood. Sealed my pardon with His blood, Hallelujah! What a Savior!” But what ashamed Savior He was. I believe that this is what this psalm is unpacking for us. The psalm speaks of shame – its presence, its power, is vocabulary, its inner workings, its judgmental voice, and most importantly it speaks to us about deliverance from the shame that is common to each one of us.
- Deliverance From Shame
The deliverance is introduced in verse 2 when David says, “Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily! Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me!” I wonder if you know that over the last six weeks, three new books have been released written by three different authors, published by three separate Christian publishing houses, each with the same title. One word – Unashamed. Shortly before that, another book was written by Ed Welch, counselor from CC, Christian Counseling, and Educational Foundation, this one titled, Shame Interrupted. And last year, one of the most helpful books I’ve ever read on shame was written by Dr. Curt Thompson called, The Soul of Shame. He’s a Christian psychiatrist and it is stunning in its unveiling of a subject that frankly none of us wants to look at but each of us finds profoundly common in our day to day experience. Shame.
So at the risk of using an outline that hasn’t been used elsewhere, therefore can’t be corroborated, I’m going to use a very simple one. Shame – what is it? Secondly – how does it work? And third – what do we do with it? I think this psalm answers very clearly what we need to hear.
What is Shame?
First of all – what is shame? The first verse says, “In you, O LORD, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame.” Verse 17, “O LORD, let me not be put to shame, for I call upon you; let the wicked be put to shame; let them go silently to Sheol.” Dr. Thompson in his book, The Soul of Shame, says that to be human is to be infected with this phenomenon that we call shame. All that it requires is a pulse, meaning that if you’re breathing, you’re struggling with shame. You may be looking at it, you may be deflecting and hiding from it, but the reality is, to be human is to struggle with shame. It goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden when our first parents, the first two humans, Adam and Eve when they rebelled and went their own way, the first emotion they felt was shame.
We’ll come back to that in a moment, but I want you to think about how shame works. I had a whole page of illustrations of people who were shamed, people whose experiences you would nod and agree with, but then it came to me – I’m the illustration of shame. My life is the clearest and most accessible picture that I can present to you of what shame is. The voices that say, “You don’t measure up,” the voice that says, “You need to prove yourself,” the voice that says, “You’re not working hard enough,” the voice that says, “You don’t belong here. You’re an outsider,” the voice that says, “You should be more,” or the voice that says, “You’re too much.” We all hear the voices, don’t we? It goes all the way back to how we were raised. Some of us failed, some of us are failing now, some of us quit, some of us were abused, some of us were the abusers, some of us are the abusers. We think of things that reside in our memories, the unmentionable memories – things that we did that we should have never done; things that were done to us that still to this day fill us with shame. It’s all of us, isn’t it? The performing, the pleasing, the perfectionism, the proving. Shame says that “If you knew the truth about me, you wouldn’t love me. You love who I think I am but I can’t bear to let you know who I really am. If you did, you wouldn’t want anything to do with me.” It’s that same voice that looks at God and says, “God, how could You possibly love me? Look at who I am. I cannot bear to look at who I am.” It’s the voice of self-contempt that says, “I should be so much better. I keep doing this over and over and over again. How is it that God still puts up with me?” And while shame is one of the most common emotions, each of us feels alone in it. Each of us thinks, “It’s just me. Y’all look so much better dressed than I feel on the inside and I’m the only one here wrestling with shame. I’m the only one that hears the voice.” But that’s not true, is it?
Shame can Lead to Aloneness
As a matter of fact, throughout this psalm, David talks about the aloneness that he feels in his wrestling with what I believe is profound in deep shame. He talks about rejection, what is even total rejection in verse 11, because he lists four categories of people in his orbit and each one has bailed on him. “Because of all of my adversaries I have become a reproach,” he says in verse 11, “especially to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.” Do you hear it? The adversaries, the neighbors, the acquaintances, those who see me on the street – who else is there? “Enemies, friends, close people, strangers, they’re all turning their back and they all leave me saying, ‘It’s just me. I’m the only one wrestling with the shame.’” That inner voice of the inner judge, the inner critic that leads us to hide, to withdraw, to live lives marked by joylessness and absence of passion, discovers shame is highly connected with violence and aggression. Shame is a central piece to all of our addiction. It drives addiction and it results from addiction. It’s a central part of racial conflict. Both sides of the racial conflict find shame at the very core of what motivates them to respond the way they do. Shame is a big piece of depression. One writer put it this way. “Shame is the swampland of the soul.”
Shame vs Guilt
And actually, when we think about shame we recognize quickly that it’s very different from guilt. They’re not the same thing. Think about it this way. Guilt says, “I feel bad about what I’ve done.” Shame says, “I feel bad about who I am.” Guilt is very objective. “I broke the rule or I failed to do what I should have done.” Shame is much deeper; it’s subjective and it says not, “I have sinned,” but, “I am the sinner.” Biblically speaking, it’s a necessary part of being put back right with this God from whom our sin has separated because you see, sin incurs guilt and guilt overflows into shame, so much so that J.I. Packer in his book, Knowing God, says that “If we wrestle to know who God is, we should pray for the grace to be ashamed.” The Puritan, Thomas Watson, put it this way. “Without shame, there is no real repentance.” It’s a necessary part of coming back. And what we’ll discover is that shame will always make us hide, just like our first parents did. We’ll either hide from God or we’ll learn by His grace to hide in Him. But you’ll never stop hiding, you cannot stop hiding when it comes to shame.
Seek the Grace to be Ashamed
And you see shame more clearly in this passage when you realize what the opposite of shame is. The opposite of shame is not pride, nor is it just honor, though that’s a piece of it. The real opposite, the polar opposite, the extreme opposite of shame is righteousness. It’s what you see in verse 1. “In you, O LORD, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me!” What I need for my shame is not to feel better about myself, not someone to put his arm around me and say, “It’s not so bad. You’re actually better than that person is.” What I need is what only Jesus can give me, and that is His absolute, complete, and perfect righteousness that reshapes my whole identity and redefines my story. It speaks truth in the place marked by lies from which I cannot escape. And at the same time, shame is also deceptive because some of us feel shame when we shouldn’t feel shame. We call that illegitimate shame. Think of the woman who is violated and for the rest of her life feels shame at the result of what someone else did to her. That’s illegitimate shame. But some of us don’t feel shame when we should feel shame. We call that shamelessness. And this is why J.I. Packer said to seek the grace to be ashamed.
How Does Shame Work?
Now if that’s what shame is, the second question then is, “How does it work? What’s its function? If you were to unpack it, what are the pieces to it?” Well again, back to Genesis chapter 25, chapter 2 rather, verse 25. When God created a perfect world and started and beautiful and whole and complete story, the summary statement that Moses uses to record, this is what it was like, he says, “And the man and the woman were both naked and they were unashamed.” Notice, before the first sin, the descriptive word to define their experience was the opposite of shame – unashamed, sinless, righteous, perfect. Completely vulnerable, transparent, deeply known, and highly treasured. A world of goodness, beauty, and absolute truth. But into that story came an enemy, came in the form of a serpent, one who used words. Think about it – a talking serpent. And that serpent began to speak of a different narrative. He came asking questions, he raised doubt, brought distortion, deception, ultimately denial, and that enemy created a whole new narrative not by force, but simply by persuasive words; words that sounded more plausible than the story these people already knew to be true. Words that were more accessible, more appealing, and they bought in. They believed the lie and they rebelled and a whole new narrative began, one marked by rebellion and brokenness and ongoing shame.
The man and the woman, in response, they covered up, they hid, they blamed. The woman blamed the man, the man blamed – rather, the woman blamed the snake, the man blamed the woman, and then he had the audacity to blame God. “The woman that You put here! We were fine before You put her here!” Covered up, blamed, shamed, hid, and what you hear is our story as well. Because those same voices are working in our hearts and minds today bringing about doubts, creating distortion, ultimately deception, ultimately denial. And a new narrative takes shape in our heads, one that is very different than the one God was declaring to be true. Listen to how David talks about this new narrative, the voices that he was listening to, in Psalm 31. It’s unique language. Verse 13, “For I hear the whispering of many – terror on every side! – as they scheme together against me, to plot to take my life.” Verse 18, “Let the lying lips be mute, which speak insolently against the righteous in pride and contempt.” Verse 20, “You store them in the shelter from the strife of tongues.” Do you hear all the persuasive words, language? Whispering, plotting, terrorizing, scheming, lying, speaking insolently, accusingly, scornfully, with contempt. The strife, the conflict, the combat of words. Do you feel that viscerally? This is our story. God gave us life and the story we hear inside our heads is, “It’s not what is out there; it’s what I hear inside here. It’s not God’s truth that I want to hear. It’s the truth that I hear resonating in my own head – I don’t belong. I’m not enough. I don’t compare as well as they do. I am hopeless. I am empty. I am worthless.” This is shame talking.
“And God can’t be trusted,” is ultimately what it says to us. “You can’t trust this God. If He really knew you, He wouldn’t have any interest in you whatsoever.” And so we go on doing what Adam and Eve did. We hide, we blame, we shame ourselves, we shame others, we deny, we defend, we rationalize, we distract ourselves, we work, we look the other way, we anesthetize ourselves against the voice of shame with what we consume, we entertain ourselves, we blame others, but shame remains. So if that’s how shame works – the words inside of our heads creating a new narrative that makes the truth of God feel ever more distant, makes us want to embrace the new narrative that we know down deep, “This isn’t true. This is true,” but we keep coming back to this, then what hope is there for us? What do we do with shame?
The Gospel Dispels Shame
Well, I need to say, first of all, that because of the Gospel of Jesus Christ shame does not have the final word. It does not! In the Gospel, there is healing and redemption and renewal, even in the worst of our shame. But watch how David talks about this and contrasts the beginning of the psalm with the end of the psalm. At the beginning of the psalm in verse 2, he says, “Rescue me speedily! God, get me out of this quickly!” But at the end of the psalm, verse 24, he says, “Be strong and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD!” You see here’s what’s happened. He begins by saying, “Get me out of this shame, quickly!” and he ends with, “Wait for the Lord.” Dr. Thompson, in The Soul of Shame, says that “We want to be rescued from shame but shame will never be conquered as with a guillotine blow. Rather, it must be starved to death, and that will take the rest of our lives.” The voices will continue. The question is, to which ones will we listen? The only way we’ll ever be delivered from the voices and power of shame is to stop hiding from God and learn to hide in God. Again, Dr. Thompson says, “Those parts of us that feel most broken, that we keep most hidden, are the parts that most desperately need to be known by God so as to be loved and healed. These are the parts that contain our shame, and only in those instances when our shamed parts are known do they stand a chance to be redeemed.”
So practically, how do we learn to hide in God? I mean that sounds like something you say from the pulpit but nobody ever explains to you. How do we stop hiding from God and learn to hide in God? And here’s why this is so important. When you walk out these doors, whichever ones you walk out, you will walk out of here a hider. You can’t not hide when it comes to shame. The only question is, “Where?” And you’ll need to decide, not just now but for the rest of your life, “Where will you hide? From God or in Him?”
What Does It Mean to Hide in God?
So, what does it mean to hide in God? Well, when my family moved to Romania to work with Mission to the World, the month before we left we spent in New York City at what they call Pre-Field Training. And part of our time there was working with a linguistic specialist who taught us how to learn a new language. One of the things he said over and over again was, “In order to learn a new language you have to be willing to make a million mistakes. In fact, if you wait until you get all the grammar worked out and you’ve got all the vocabulary lined up so you don’t make mistakes, you’ll never learn to speak that language because you’ll never get there without making a lot of mistakes. So, go out there and start making mistakes. Plan too!” And I would say that that’s the image we most need to embrace when it comes to conquering our shame. It’s going to require you to learn a new language and it’s not one that you’ll figure out how to do it and you’ll get it right from now on. You’re going to keep on battling with shame but you’re going to need to learn to speak a new language which creates a new narrative in the face of the ongoing shame.
Here’s what this looks like. When in your shame you find yourself profoundly confused and uncertain and you don’t even know which way to turn or to whom or how then you recite the new language of verse 3. “For you are my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me. God, I don’t know which way to turn but I’m trusting You will lead me in the middle of my confusion.” When in your shame you feel trapped and imprisoned and you feel like there’s no way out of this, then you rehearse the language of verse 8. “But you have set my feet in a broad place.” That’s the difference from clinging to a very narrow ledge on a cliff and wondering, “How do I get out of this?” and in contrast being in a broad meadow where you go, “Ahhhhh.” I love Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Psalm 62 where he says, “You, O LORD, have given me breathing room for my soul.” That’s the voice that you need to rehearse in response to the voice of shame that keeps you feeling trapped.
When in your shame you feel abandoned and you find yourself saying, with the psalmist in verse 22, “I am cut off from your sight. I don’t think God sees me. I don’t think He cares. I don’t think He even knows where I am.” When you find yourself saying what Jesus said on the cross, “My God, My God! Why have You forsaken Me?” then you rehearse the new language of verse 14 that says, “But I trust in you, O LORD. You are my God. I am Yours. You have made me Yours. I belong to You. You love me with an unfailing love.” That word, “unfailing love” in Hebrew is “hesed,” which Sally Lloyd-Jones in her Jesus Storybook Bible translates over and over again with these words – it is His “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love.” You won’t get that language right, not at first, but start making mistakes but speak the words back to the lies that are crowding into your mind and clamoring for attention.
When you have failed so many times and the shame is so deep because you keep doing the same thing over and over and over again and you put your head in your hands and say, “How can I keep doing this?” And you fear that God looks at you and He says, “I’m so tired of this.” And He’s not going to reject you because He’s promised to always hold you and He’s promised to keep you, but you begin to fear He’s growing indifferent and maybe even a little resentful. And He’s saying, “Come on!” When you feel that in your shame, you rehearse the words of verse 19. You say, “Oh, how abundant is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you and worked for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of the children of mankind!” God has got so much good stored up for you. He really does! And your shame is not going to be an obstacle to His saying, “I love you. I really am going to finish the good work that I’ve begun in you. Trust Me with this, would you?”
And when the shame grows even deeper and your life feels absolutely out of control – it may be an addiction, it may be pattern behavior from which you feel like all you are is a victim and you’ve got no control, you’re nothing but vulnerable, then you rehearse the language of verse 15 where David says, “My times are in your hand; rescue me from the hand of my enemies and from the hand of my persecutors!” There is nothing that comes to you apart from that which goes through the hands of God. You think that you’re in the hands of an enemy; actually, there’s four times this psalm uses the word “hand.” Twice it talks about “Deliver me from the hand of my enemy. Rescue me from the hand of my enemy.” But then twice it says, “It’s Your hand, God. My times are in Your hand. My future is in Your hand. My experience is in Your hand. You hold me.” And then the words of Jesus on the cross, “Into Your hand I commit My Spirit.”
And then maybe in the deepest shame where all goes dark and you look around and you say, “I can’t find any voice of truth. I can’t find anything that speaks to where I am.” What do I cling to when all is dark and black and all I hear is silence? Shame sometimes gets that dark. In that place, you rehearse the words of verse 16. “Make your face shine on your servant; lift up the light of your countenance upon me. Sit with me in the darkness and illumine the dark with your presence.” God meets us there in the dark. He promises. Even the darkness of the shame of our own making. You have to learn a new language.
Let me leave you with one final picture that I hope will bring this all into sharp focus. Two miracles are recorded in the New Testament; both involve fishing trips. You know how I love fishing, so these stories appeal to me. They’re very similar. The one is at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry; the other is at the end after His resurrection. One is recorded in Luke 5. The other in John 21. In both stories, professional fishermen who really know what they’re doing fish all night long. They’re using boats and nets and when the sun comes up they’ve caught zero fish, both stories, nothing. They’re exhausted, they’re worn out; they’re done. They’re pulling in their nets and they say, “No mas. No more. We’re done.” In both stories, someone who really doesn’t know a lot about fishing at all gives some very counterintuitive instruction that really doesn’t make any sense. You know it’s Jesus, of course, and in one story He says, “Go out into the deep water and let your nets down there.” Well, all the fishermen know fish don’t hang in the deep water. They’re too vulnerable. They stay at the shore where they’re safer. The other story He says, “Toss your nets on the other side of the boat for a catch.” In both places, the disciples say, “Man, this doesn’t make any sense, but if You say so, we’ll do it.” And in both stories, the nets fill with so many fish that they begin to tear and the boats begin to sink so that they have to call other boats in to help with this massive catch.
In both stories, Peter is front and center. He’s there in the boat. In the first story, he sees who it is that’s in the boat and he’s stunned and he’s ashamed and he says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man! Get away from me! I’ve got to hide from You! I cannot bear for You to see me as who I truly am! Get away from me!” But in the second story, Peter looks at the shore and it’s Jesus. This time, he recognizes how deep his shame really is. He remembers that he was the one who said to Jesus, “Even if all these other eleven disciples leave You, I don’t. I will even die for You!” And in the moment of the courtyard of the priests, when the third time Peter denies even knowing Jesus, the rooster crows and Luke tells us that the eyes of Peter and the eyes of Jesus met, just for a moment, and the shame, oh the shame that washed over that man. He wept bitterly. And now, for the second time, the nets are so full that the boat’s beginning to sink and Peter remembers the first time he said, “I’m going to do it. Jesus, depart from me. I’m sinful; I can’t be around You. I don’t want to look at You.” Now, now he peels off his clothes and jumps in the water and he starts swimming for all he’s worth, not away from Jesus, but he swims straight to Jesus. And there he is, dragging himself onto the shore, dripping wet, the waves pushing him in, sand all over, and he’s standing, as it were, in his underwear in front of Jesus. And he says, “Would You please take me back? Please take me back.”
You and I will always hide when it comes to shame. The only question is – where? Will you continue to hide from the Lord Jesus or will you allow the Holy Spirit to write a new narrative, to create words that are so much louder and so much more convincing that you really do belong and that to the degree that you are vulnerable and open before Him and say, “Here I am. You know me to the bottom but You love me to the stars,” you come back and you make a million mistakes, you’re going to get it wrong, the shame will come back, but each time you say, “But You, O LORD, have said this. This is what You say is true about me. I don’t want to hide from You anymore. I don’t want to cover up and try to make it look as well as I can. I want to come home because You’re my only safe place.”
One of my favorite singers is Ellie Holcomb and these are the words she wrote in this light, and we’ll close with these. “I am not who I once was, defined by all the things I’ve done. Afraid my shame would be exposed; afraid of really being known. But then You gave my heart a home and so I walked out of the darkness and into the light, from fear of shame into the hope of life. Mercy called my name and made a way to fly out of the darkness and into the light.” Would you join me in running to Jesus and stop hiding from Him? Let’s pray together!
In You, O Lord, do we take refuge. Would You rescue us from our shame, in Your righteousness deliver us? Incline Your ear to us; rescue us speedily. Enable us to be strong. Let our hearts take courage as we wait for You, as You rewrite the story of our lives, as You silence the voice of the enemy and progressively let us hear You rejoicing over us with singing. Lord Jesus, we need You. Rescue us from our shame as You have taken our place in judgment, as You have become our sin, our guilt, and all our shame, rejected and abandoned by Your Father, remind us that You have done so, so that we would never be, that we would never be rejected and abandoned as we hide in You. So by faith and in the shame that brings repentance, deep repentance, bring us back to Yourself and embrace us close and may we hear Your voice whispering peace, belonging, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
©2016 First Presbyterian Church.
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