The Psalms bring good things to us, connect us to communities of faith throughout the ages, and express creatively the whole story of a people.
Living the Psalms
Here we are at the tail end of our fall series on the Psalms, and we’ve discovered that the Psalms are both precious and perplexing to us.
Many of us have turned to the Psalms our whole lives long to find comfort, strength and guidance. We never cease to be amazed how the Psalms address the whole range of human experience. The beautiful poetry so often speaks directly to our hearts. And singing the psalms can be so uplifting!
But there is a lot in the Psalms that offends our sensibilities and is just plain repugnant to us. Take Psalm 109, for instance, where the Psalmist curses the wicked, “May his days be few; may another seize his position. May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow. May there be no one to do him a kindness, nor anyone to pity his orphaned children. May his posterity be cut off; may his memory be cut off from the earth.”
I recently read Psalm 34 at the hospital bedside of one of our members, but admitted to her that I wasn’t going to read the parts of the Psalm that stigmatize some people as righteous and others as unrighteous. “I’m just not into that kind of labeling and defaming of people, even our enemies,” I told her.
Of course, we need to read the Psalms critically as we do all of the Bible to discern what is true and what is false.
But we mustn’t be afraid or dismissive of the Psalms! Rather, we may want to dive in and immerse ourselves in them for the good they can bring us, for the way they connect us to communities of faith throughout the ages, and for the creative way they express the whole story of a people.
So the first reason we may want to immerse ourselves in the Psalms is that…
THE PSALMS BRING GOOD THINGS TO US
I was raised in a church that took the Bible very seriously, too seriously some times. But the benefit for me was being immersed in the Bible from a very young age. Every Saturday night, the tv went off, and the four of us children went to our rooms to complete the lesson in our Sunday School manual by looking up answers in our Bibles. We also had to memorize the Bible verse which we would be reciting to our Sunday School teacher the following morning. We could come out of our rooms only when we could show our parents that we had completed our S.S. lesson, and could recite to them the memory verse word for word. In those early years, I’m sure I memorized over 100 verses from the Psalms, most of which come back to my heart and mind frequently.
Then in high school, my Campus Life director urged us to bring our Bible to school with us every day, place it right on top our pile of books as a conversation-starter with classmates or teachers. I was terrified that I’d be known as holier-than-thou, but I did it anyway. What was more important to me than having my Bible with me at all times was having a list of verses from the Psalms taped Inside the front cover of my Bible, verses for all kinds of situations in life, covering a wide range of human experience.
Again and again, that list in the fly leaf of my Bible pointed me to the Psalms for whatever I was facing.
When feeling afraid…”The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life. Of whom shall I be afraid?” (27:1)
When feeling depressed…”Why art thou cast down, oh my soul, and why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in God, who is the help of thy countenance, and thy God.” (43:5)
When feeling anxious…”Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord.” (27:14)
When needing help…”I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help comes from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.” (121:1-2)
When in trouble…”Thou art my hiding place; thou shalt preserve me from trouble; thou shalt encompass me about with songs of deliverance.” (32:7)
When feeling ugly or unattractive…”I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knows right well.” (139:14)
When feeling restless or agitated…“Be still and know that I am God.” (46:10)
When feeling unsafe or insecure…”He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.” (91:1-2)
When reading the Bible…”Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.” (119:18)
When turning to prayer…“I love the Lord, because he hath heard my voice and my supplications. Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore will I call upon him as long as I live.” (116:1-2)
When needing forgiveness…”Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (51:10)
When tempted with greed…“Delight thyself also in the Lord: and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.” (37:4)
When struggling with impure thoughts…”Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.” (19:14)
I don’t look at the Bible as an instruction manual, as I once did. I now read and listen to the Bible as the ancient witnesses and voices of people of faith. But I truly value that list of verses from the Psalms in the fly leaf of my Bible because they have companioned with me along life’s journey.
Millions love the Psalms because they soothe the spirits of the depressed, those who are overwhelmed with the transience, even catastrophic, nature of life, and remind them that a core of grace, remembrance and connection survive.
A second reason we may want to immerse ourselves in the Psalms is that…
THE PSALMS CONNECT US TO COMMUNITIES OF FAITH THROUGHOUT THE AGES
Praying the psalms joins us at the heart to Jewish people whose daily private and communal prayer was formed and informed by the psalms.
The earliest Christians, and Jesus himself, found in the psalter the language, images and events that seemed to be fulfilled in the mission and ministry of Jesus. In the New testament, the psalms are quoted more often than any other book of the Hebrew Bible.
From the 4th century on, memorizing the Psalms was a requirement for monastic life and for ordination and thus a fixed part of the curriculum of the Latin grammar schools where future priests and most other readers were trained. Indeed, the phrase, “saying the psalms” was their synonym for early education.
All of the leaders of the reformation, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox & Cranmer had grown up praying the psalms and considered them essential for the public and private prayer of Christians—Calvin insisted that nothing other than the Psalms and a few New Testament Canticles should be sung in Church.
Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero for whom we have named rooms in our building, had special devotion to the psalms which they prayed every day.
The Psalms connect us to 3000 years of prayer. And not just any prayer, but prayer that expresses the values of an alternative community. In a society and culture that shapes us into the pyramid of empire, the Psalms shape us into the circle of equality, justice and wholeness.
A third reason we may want to immerse ourselves in the Psalms is that…
THE PSALMS EXPRESS CREATIVELY THE WHOLE STORY OF A PEOPLE
In various books of the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, we can read ancient Israel’s story in narrative form – Creation; God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the Exodus out of slavery in Egypt; the giving of the Law to Moses; the acquisition of the Promised Land; the priesthood in the line of Aaron; the monarchy through the line of David; the building of and worship in the Temple; the centrality of the city of Jerusalem; the Exile into Babylon; the hope of a future Messiah.
What is unique and significant about the Psalms is that the entire story of ancient Israel, including all that I just listed for you, is all there!
For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth. Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you.
Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent.
O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and grey hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come.
As Psalm 71 expresses the whole life of the psalmist from infancy to old age, so the entire Psalter expresses the whole history of Israel from Creation to the messianic reign of God.
Not only is ancient Israel’s story all there in the Psalms, it is all there in vivid and memorable poetry and song. In the wisdom of the ancients, it wasn’t enough to know the facts of the story, the story had to be told in expressive, dramatic, even exotic language which wasn’t merely recited, but was sung!
This helped move the story from their heads to their hearts! The Psalms expressed in beautiful poetry and song Israel’s life with God and Israel’s heart for God.
This, truthfully, is what motivated the Ministry of Adult Faith Formation to offer opportunities this fall for us to create our own psalms. We believe it’s important to share our stories as individuals, and our story as a faith community, not only in words, but in other ways as well…through music, art, dance, pantomime, architecture or landscaping. You name it! How does it make sense for YOU to express YOUR life with God, YOUR heart for God? We wanted to follow ancient Israel’s good example and share our stories in creative memorable ways.
We’ve given you examples on the screen and in the ORUCC PSALTER, which you have as an insert in your bulletin, of various expressions of our life with God and our heart for God, through poetry and art.
But has it ever dawned on you that this church has already done some good work expressing the story of our church through music? We invited Sara Thomsen to put our mission statement to music and then teach it to us! On a couple of occasions in the last couple of years, we’ve sung our Psalm during worship, and we’re going to sing our psalm again today.
This is the story of our church – we’re spiritually alive, joyfully inclusive, and committed to justice! What joy to have young children like Beckem, Vivien and Maverick grow up in our church not only singing the ancient psalms, but contemporary psalms of this very church!