Over the course of the winter and spring, many of us, including the Ministry of Adult Faith Formation, began realizing that as people of faith, the times we are living in invite us, even challenge us, to think about deepening our faith to help us thrive in this chaotic and confusing social time.
There are many paths to take, but pretending we aren’t affected, or trying to ignore the realities, can’t be one of them.
More and more the psalms of our Hebrew Bible began to emerge as a potential resource. This songbook of 150 songs and prayers, written over 5 centuries by assorted people, are a fascinating exploration of human emotion and faith in the language of both individuals and communities.
Most of us, I would suspect, are familiar with only a couple of these amazing lyrics. Psalm 23, often read at funerals (as it was yesterday), appears in times when comforting words are needed. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
We may remember Psalm 139 and it’s conviction that it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works.
Many of us are familiar with Psalm 100. Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into God’s presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God. Our opening prayer was an adaptation of this Psalm.
Some of us have negative experiences with the Psalms. Many times over my life I have gone to daily prayer at the Holy Wisdom monastery, or other monasteries that pray the psalms every day; only to hear pleas to wipe out my enemies, to make the wicked suffer, and it the worst case, to throw my enemies children against the rocks.
My first reaction to hearing or reading these kinds of psalms responsively is – why do they do this? This totally sucks. It is not uplifting nor is it helpful.
My second reaction, however, has been ‘what is in these psalms that inspires these beautiful nuns or brothers to go back to them every day, year after year?’ Not just here in Dane County, but across the globe, in communities of every language.
What’s in them, we discover, is the breadth of human experience: the emotions of anger, and jealousy; the gut responses of thanksgiving and praise. What’s in them is a template for faith and relationship with the Divine that understands prayer as part of the wrestling, part of the grist for working through the challenges – internal and external – of life. That they continue to be used thousands of years later by people of faith is a reminder that there is a deep river of wisdom in these ancient prayers. We want to drink deeply from this amazing resource.
Junot Diaz, a Dominican born writer and teacher recently reflected on what’s needed in our culture (in these days, but really in any age). “We are not a culture that has built into our way of being, our way of thinking, our civic imaginaries — contemplation, mourning, working through difficult contradictory emotions. That’s not part of our society; and therefore, where society leaves off, we need to take up. Society miseducates us.
Society gives us a lot of prompts and a lot of encouragements to be reactive, emotionally reactive… It’s incumbent upon us to be reflective, to be complex, to be subtle, to be nuanced, to take our time in societies which are none of these things and which encourage none of these things…Nothing…is more critical than to be misaligned from the emotional baseline of any mainstream society. (Junot Diaz) On Being Interview
For centuries, people of faith have found the psalms as a tool for contemplation and mourning, a guide to difficult emotions and a fabulous tool for becoming ‘misaligned with the emotional baseline of our mainstream society.’
We are already exploring them in a variety of ways. Over the course of the fall, we’ll just get a taste of this vast resource. We’ll sing them – in ancient form and with contemporary renditions. We’ll pray them. We’ll explore their history and breadth as Ken started to do this morning. We’ll read newer translations, as Margaret did this morning. And of course, we’ll be invited to let these ancient words prompt our own contemporary responses – in song, art, music, and words.
In addition to our local resources, we will turn to another guide, Old Testament and UCC Scholar Walter Bruggemann (and also a classmate of the late Ray Hernandez of this congregation). Through years of study and wrestling with the psalms, Bruggemann suggests that there is a three-fold movement that appears in the entire Psalter. It is not a linear pattern, but it is there in life and word.
The three stages are songs of
Orientation, Disorientation and Reorientation.
This movement will guide our worship services and sermons. What does he mean by this?
Psalms of Orientation reflect a life of that is serene about faith, that knows God as trustworthy. It speaks of a happy, well-ordered world without fear. Often these psalms see creation as part of God’s stability and love – a reliable and life-giving system. A major theme is that of Thanksgiving. A profound trust in the God who makes this so and where God’s people live without anxiety.
Psalms like this have functioned in many ways.
- We could imagine this as the message of faith we teach our children, trying to build a base upon which later doubts, questions and uncertainties can be explored.
- We can imagine these as more formal, corporate songs of faith – a canopy under which we journey as a people. This is not intended to stifle individual questions or expressions – but to remind us of the general arc of our community over time.
In the same way, these psalms with their time tested value, remind us that the challenges of today weigh on us differently as we pray ancient prayers of people who often struggled even more than we do.
The second stage is that of disorientation.
These Psalms demand that we do not pretend the world is other than it really is. They speak not of safety and control, but fear and a sense that little is in our control. They name the trouble in our relationship with life, and even God. While most psalms of disorientation often conclude with gratitude and praise, they do not minimize the pain, the anger, the confusion or the doubt. Sometimes these are personal songs, other times they emerge from an entire community. Laments are part of this movement. Maybe most important for us – they see nothing that can’t be included in prayer. The relationship demands a hearing from God, all niceties are forgotten. But connection is assumed.
We are less experienced with these psalms in large part because many of us have inherited a belief that God doesn’t want to hear our doubts, that our anger necessitates a move away from God rather than a true struggle. It is for this reason we’ll explore these with intention and openness. Is there something in their pattern of pain and promise that might help guide us in times of deep grief, anger or despair.
And finally there psalms of re-orientation. These are hymns and songs of thanksgiving with the welcome and amazed recognition that a newness has been given which is not achieved, not automatic, not derived from the old, but is a genuine newness wrought by gift.
They speak of surprise and wonder, miracle, amazement when a new orientation has been granted to the disoriented, often unexpectedly.
In theological terms, they are similar to what Paul Ricoeur calls a ‘second naiveté.” It is a place where lived experiences of struggle and newfound trust co-exist.
A few weeks ago I attended the Mennonite service in this room on a Sunday night. A friend I’ve known for many years shared in their joys and concerns the deepening struggle she and her family are having with their mother’s descent into dementia at age 65.
Chatting with her later, I shared that, believe it or not, for me, a mother’s dementia included many gifts as well as they expected and heart wrenching griefs, angers and confusions. She found that unbelievable. Gingerly, without trying to suggest her journey would be like mine, I expressed the gift of learning how to care for someone who can’t care for themselves; and the gift of children used to mom being the hub of communication learning how to communicate directly with each other. Those gifts didn’t erase the pain, but rather were richer because of the pain.
Were I to create a psalm of reorientation, it would seek to encompass the joy of life and love I knew as a child with that mother (orientation), the pain and agony of the confusing journey as she withered away (disorientation) and the deeper appreciation for life, love and the nuances therein that I know today (reorientation).
As with the Hebrew psalms, all of these stages are real, and frankly important, as we continue to explore what it means to be people of faith today. I invite us on that journey. To begin the journey, I invite a few moments of quiet as you consider these prompt questions:
Is there a psalm that has been valuable to you in your life?
Where are you in this three-fold movement of orientation, disorientation and reorientation?
Is there a prayer you’ve been afraid to pray?