Appreciating the Psalms

I am an enormous fan of the Psalms of the Old Testament. I frequently turn to them in my own prayer and often suggest particular psalms for retreatants, those who come to me for spiritual direction, and others. (I’m not the only one: my friend Maria wrote a beautiful blog post last week about the power of the psalms for her, which you can read here.)

I was reminded of the power of the Psalms at UST’s Weekly Manna gathering this week, at which the speaker was my friend and colleague Joel Nichols. He began by talking about the psalms in general terms – mentioning the different categories of psalms (thanksgiving, lamentation, praise, etc.) and spoke about seeing them as songs that “seep into our heart.”

Joel then spent time with Psalms 22. He had begun our session by reading the short account in Mark’s Gospel of Jesus’ death, which records Jesus crying out to his father, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me,” which is, as many people will recognize (but equally as many will not), is the opening line of Psalm 22.

Joel remarked that we often read Jesus’ words from the cross as simply expressing Jesus’ anguish. What if instead, Joel suggested, we understand Jesus to be using the Psalm in its entirety? Not reciting, but perhaps praying.

With that suggestion, Joel took us through the movement of the psalm. The psalm begins with a sense of abandonment. My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?…I call by day, but you do not answer.” Yet, even in the feeling of abandonment, the psalmist recalls the trust of the ancestors: “they trusted and you answered them.” But the psalmist is still not encouraged. He records being scorned and mocked, people suggesting “You relied on the Lord – let him deliver you.” The psalmist then remembers that God drew him from the womb and begs for God to be near.

What struck me as I listened to Joel move through the Psalm was that if one understands Jesus as either implicitly or explicitly praying his way through psalm, or at least understands the flow of emotion and thought, it becomes much easier to understand Jesus’ movement from “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me” to “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”

And, as Joel observed, if I realize that Jesus could say this to God and could go through this movement, then I can understand that I can as well.

Psalm 22 is a valuable psalm for us when not feeling God, when we are not feeling hope.

My hope is that Joel’s talk will encourage more people to pray with the Psalms and to find ones, like this one, that they can go to in times of need.

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Praising God

The other day my friend Mark Osler raised with me the question of prayer that takes the form of praising God. Much Christian prayer, particularly among evangelicals, he observed is prayer of praise. For what purpose, he wondered? God certainly has no need of our praise, so what function does it serve?

I had one answer for Mark that morning and another one came to me during my morning prayer several days after our conversation.

What I said during our conversation is that I think praising God, disposes us toward God. That is, prayers of praise create an openness in us that helps us to hear God more clearly. So, although God is the object of our prayer, it is we, not God, who are the beneficiaries.

Another response struck me during my prayer one morning. I had been reflecting on something that caused me to spontaneously utter a prayer of praise to God. I was so… I actually don’t have a single word to insert int he blank space after “I was so ___” – because what prompted the spontaneous outburst of praise was not one thing but a combination of gratitude, joy and awe. And when something happens that generates that feeling of gratitude/joy/awe, there is no other response but praise. I didn’t sit down to pray a prayer of praise; it just came out.

I think that is what was going on in many of the psalms. I don’t think anyone said to the psalmist, “Hey, we need to praise God so could you come up with something.” Rather, the psalms of praise were spontaneously outpourings of a people experiencing something like the the range of emotions I experienced.

Does God need that praise? No. But does God delight in it..in what is going on between us and God that gives rise to the prayer of praise? I’m willing to bet the answer to that is yes.

Good enough for me

I read Stuart Kestenbaum’s poem, Psalm, for the first time this past December and it keeps coming back to me. 

“The only psalm I had memorized was the 23rd
and now I find myself searching for the order
of the phrases knowing it ends with surely
goodness and mercy will follow me
all the days of my life and I will dwell
in the house of the Lord forever only I remember
seeing a new translation from the original Hebrew
and forever wasn’t forever but a long time
which is different from forever although
even a long time today would be
good enough for me even a minute entering
the House would be good enough for me,
even a hand on the door or dropping today’s
newspaper on the stoop or looking in the windows
that are reflecting this morning’s clouds in the first light.”