The Psalms are not just Scriptures to be read but invitations to pray. In fact, they are model prayers for Jews and Christians. We read them and meditate on them not just as a way of inspiring us, but also as invitations to make time and space to connect personally to God in prayer. Throughout the centuries Jews and Christians have used the words of the Psalms to inspire their own personal prayers, along with the prayers and songs of their communities. To prepare our hearts to delve into the Psalms this week, I want to invite you to join me in reflecting on the words of Walter Brueggemann, a leading scholar on the Psalms in his book The Psalms and the Life of Faith:
“We turn to Israel’s other model of prayer, the lament. We might expect that the propensity for praise would require Israel to yield its own agenda, get its mind off itself, mute its concerns, understate its need, in order to focus everything on Yahweh in praise. The surprise of Israel’s prayer is that the extravagance of praise does not silence or censor Israel’s need but seems to legitimate and authorise a second extravagance, the extravagance of complaint, lament, accusation, petition, indignation, assault, and insistence. Israel’s prayer is dialectial*, moving between these two extravagances.
“At the very limit of wonder and yielding, Israel’s prayer is an irrational abandonment of self. Israel’s prayer, however, is not uni-focal, but bi-focal. Praise does not deny the impatience of prayer, so that this utter abandonment of self is matched by an utter insistence of self and the self’s rightful claims, needs, and expectations. As doxology celebrates the peculiar character of Yahweh as faithful, so the complaints insist upon Yahweh’s faithfulness and protest against Yahweh’s refusal to be visibly and effectively faithful.
” … In the process, however, the speaker never entertains the possibility of withdrawing from conversation with God, never considers the prospect that such talk is futile or that help must be sought elsewhere. The silence (or absence) of Yahweh does not drive Israel away from prayer; it drives Israel to more earnest, intense, passionate prayer—to the very You who will not answer.
“The stubborn resolve of this faith is worth our pondering. I submit that Israel stays in the conversation with Yahweh (who does not seem to answer), not because there are no alternatives, but because Israel will not concede that the conversation of prayer belongs wholly to Yahweh or happens wholly on Yahweh’s terms. Israel has a stake (p.57) in the conversation and is ‘part owner’ of the process of prayer. Israel will not be driven from the conversation, even by Yahweh’s lack of response, and will not yield its claim to the silent sovereignty of Yahweh. Israel determinedly and self-assuredly knows that this prayer is the meeting ground where life occurs and will wait there for a response from Yahweh, if need be, ‘until Hell freezes over’… Israel fully expects that Yahweh will also be present at that deathly limit…”
As you crack open your Bibles and join me in reading these Psalms, may they be an invitation to this living conversation with God.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie!
Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,
Psalm 18 calls us to see God as angry at injustice in the world and ready to respond when we cry for help. I have to admit initially my hackles go up at this image, because of how from early on in my life I have seen on anger has be misused. Yet anger need not be viewed as always wrong. Anger is a natural response to injustice. It’s ok to be angry when used, abused, or mistreated. A tool of an abuser is to use manipulation to send the message that natural anger at being mistreated means something is wrong with you. Instead, anger is neither right nor wrong. Anger is simply a part of how our hearts let us know we’ve been hurt. Anger lets us know we need to confront the cause of our pain both to heal and, when possible, ensure we are no longer putting ourselves or others in the place to be hurt again.
The positive message in this verse is how, in the midst of oppression, discrimination, or abuse, God is not cold and indifferent. God’s heart is moved for those being hurt. God is not neutral. God is on the side of the oppressed. Yet God’s anger and justice is not like ours . God is not at work to destroy the oppressor but rather to set them free from whatever hate, insecurity, bigotry, fear, pain, or indifference keeps them from treating other children of God with the full love and respect they deserve.
Psalm 27 imagines us making ourselves at home in the place we call God’s home. The house of the Lord is described as a place we can find shelter. This is where we get the idea of a “sanctuary” as a place to flee for safety. The house of God is to be a safe place to
protect from enemy, disaster, and storm. As a child I imagined this psalm, which we sang at a church I attended as a child, as being about being in the church itself or a great temple somewhere. There may have been some truth to that idea. Surely the author of this psalm imagined the great temple of Jerusalem, where people from all over the world came to pay homage to the God who led Israel through the Red Sea, out of slavery into freedom. Yet as I’ve continued further down my spiritual journey, I’ve come to connect this image of God’s house as a place of refuge where even the mother bird can find a home more with Jesus’ promise in John 14 to prepare a place for us. Jesus prepares a place for us not simply in the brick and mortar of a church building or the splendour of some temple grounds, but instead in the embracing love He shares ever, always with his Father & Ours in the Holy Spirit, who covers us with Her love like a Mother bird who shelters her chicks under her wings. God ever, always, offers to transform where I am, in that moment, into God’s courts, God’s dwelling, if I take the time to acknowledge the embracing presence of the Holy One in it and, most of all, in me, and in you. This is true for you as well, and for all who share the breath of life. We are the temple of the Holy Spirit, the dwelling of the holy, and in God’s courts whenever and wherever wee open ourselves to the embrace of the Father, Son, and motherly Spirit.
Psalm 37 tells us not to fret because of evil doers, but to trust in the Lord who will make our righteous path clear. I think this call not to fret for other’s actions not only applies to those who are evil, but also applies to the many who may not be evil but out of ignorance, anxiety, or illness, may do things that are hurtful to us and others. It is so easy to worry about what we cannot control. And what can be more out of our control than what others will do? God calls us to give them to God’s care, and to take God’s hand. Making our righteous path clear also I think has broader meaning than we often realize. I do not think this phrase is at heart about ethics or morality. Instead your righteous path is the path that is right for you in all your uniqeness. It is the path that avoids landing you and others in the ditch. It is the trek that will keep you from getting stuck in the mud or floundered on the rocks. You have to take time, make an effort, to ensure you find this righteous path. You have to listen for the voice of the Spirit in your life. This voice comes in a sound like silence, a whisper in our souls that easily can be drowned out by the clamoring noise of our many anxieties. To know that path takes stopping your relentless journey forward, quieting the noise, laying aside your own sense of judgment upon yourself and your circumstance, in order to hear the voice underneath it all, the whispering call of peace. As you learn to do so, you are freed to take that hand which can lead you through God’s storm. For me, this has to be a daily practice.
Psalm 40 invites us to both cry out when we feel we have fallen down into a great pit, and also to remember and thank God for deliverance. Whenever anyone ever comes out of the pit, whether of illness, depression, addiction, joblessness, it is not a solitary act occuring all on its lonesome. It is a work of God. Many times this deliverance from the deep darkness comes as pure gift, without much effort on the part of the one lifted up. More often, in other times, people experience it as they learn to work together with that of God in their life, community, and circumstance.
Wherever freedom, liberation, healing, and true life occur we know that it is from the motherly Holy Spirit who lives in and through all living things. She is the life giver, and wherever healing comes or life flourishes, it is her presence that is felt and known, whatever name it is given. I remember times of deep despair in my life and how the Holy Spirit came to me in those moments, opening my heart to joy, to peace, and new perspectives which at times changed my circumstances but even when the circumstance remained, change my relationship to it.
I also hear in this Psalm a call for me to have solidarity and compassion with all who feel as if they have fallen into a pit: the person trapped into a cycle of addiction, the victim of domestic violence without yet the strength to leave, the person who is depressed, the person who is homeless, the person who has mentally illness, the person who has a disability that debilitates them, the person who is a veteran walking as wounded & broken due to their sacrifice. Often our society looks at people who seem to have fallen into a pit, and points the finger of blame. It is far too easy to turns up our nose, our hearts full of judgment. Yet this Psalm invites us to realize we are but one step away from the same struggles as they. We must not see people as merely the crosses they bear or the monkeys on their back. We must strive to see them in their full humanity, which means both their pain and their unrealized power. I hear a call from God in this Scripture to let God ignite a fire of compassion, and a vision of hope in my heart, and perhaps in yours.
Psalm 46. Two things resonate with me in this Psalm.
First, “there is a river whose streams make glad” God’s people. In the time the psalm was written this river was clearly the river that watered Jerusalem, a holy city. Yet later, after praying this psalm his whole life, Jesus talks instead about a different kind of river. In the book of John, Jesus invites people to come and experience the living Spirit who indwells all things becoming a river of living water that wells up in their souls, renewing us in this life now until it does so finally & completely by ushering us into eternal life. Our ability to not just get through crisis but to thrive is through learning how to drink deep within us of this deep well of water flowing from the river whose streams make glad.
This river I believe is available not just to Christians, but all people of all faiths, and of no particular faith tradition at all. To borrow the phrase of Father Matthew Fox, there truly is one river flowing underneath in the Person of God the Holy Spirit who indwells all life, experienced in many different wells which all name Her differently. In my own spirituality, I find stopping for meditation, mindfulness practice, prayer, spiritual practices, and even just to breathe, listen to the birds, or hear great music all help me find and drink deep of the river of Spirit that flows in and through us and all things.
Secondly, the Psalm says something important about what fruit of the presence of God among us is. The Psalm vividly paints a picture of this river inspiring the weapons of war to be broken and destroyed. This stark and vivid imagery of weapons being shattered and burned reminds me of the fact drinking deep of the Spirit is not just about my own personal “inner peace”. My drinking deep of the well of life is also about changing how I interact with God’s world. It is easy to let our pain cause us to justify hurtful words and actions to others, both those who have harmed us and, more shockingly, innocent bystanders or even intimate partners. I know I do that. But when the healing river of Spirit washes over you, that drenching in life giving presence will, little by little, help you become more gracious even when in pain. I ain’t there yet, but I’m further along than I was. I think also drinking deep of the Spirit waters calls into question the ways in which I have seen our society justify violence as the answer from spanking our kids to toting guns for protection, to jumping as quickly as we do to the death penalty or war as an option in the face of others who choose violence or crime. The river of Spirit ought to nourish us in ways that inspire us to find ever more non-violent, non-damaging ways to deal with other’s hurtful acts. With society as with our souls, it is a long-term process and a one day at a time journey. But as we each open ourselves to Spirit, I believe little by little we each can be transformed. And through us, this broken and hurting world.
What strikes me in Psalm 54 is how the psalmist feels so many have turned against him. I’ve been there. I’ve been where I gave, served, and loved individuals or a community and they stabbed me in the back. Strangely I think what has hurt the worst were moments of misunderstanding, when I felt that people were against me, and they weren’t; or where people thought I was against them and I wasn’t. It is funny, isn’t it? Oh how many ways we miss each other in relationships!
When we are the ones to make a bad choice sometimes the most loving thing people can say is “I love you; I support you. And I think that God has better for you than what you’re doing”. I’ve had that happen to me and come to appreciate those who said those words. But not always have I in the moment, when they spoke those words to me. Even those words, spoken with love, can hurt to hear. Whether the words are intended as loving or not, in the moment, the pain you feel is real.
For people who are struggling with alcoholism, mental illness, or abuse, sometimes trying to encourage them to get help can come across as an attack. This psalm reminds me of this sober and baffling truth. Yet, strangely, this reminder encourages me. It encourages me first of all because it invites me first to reach out to God and another person when I am hurting, feeling misunderstood, or feeling people are turning against me. Whether people are turning against you or not, the feeling of rejection and isolation is not something God intends you to face on your own. It can be too much to carry. It may be that you need to speak up the person involved, too.
Was what they said or did truly inappropriate? If so, this may be an opportunity to set some healthy boundaries in love. If you have not learned to set boundaries and it is new to you, choosing to do so can be frightening. Will I lose the relationship, the friendship, the romance, or the support given to me by a family member? Beginning to set boundaries in your relationships can be terrifying. Yet doing so also allows you to keep it, while also preventing future resentments that may erode an important relationship gradually until what you find so beautiful in it passes into the night.
Often, though, before one tries to set a boundary, taking the time to meditate on what has happened and even hear another’s side of things can be essential. It is possible that in talking with the one whose words or actions hurt you it is possible you might discover it is a misunderstanding. That alone can be such a healing and liberating experience.
Not only does this text speak to me when I feel rejected, but it also calls me, even when I do not feel wronged, to stand in solidarity with those who feel, rightly or wrongly, attacked and misunderstood. . It is easy when I am helping someone who is addicted, who is ill, or who is being abused, to face their problem and seek help, to have an entirely unhelpful attitdue. It is so easy to sit like I’m a judge & jury, like I’m morally superior to them. I need to see things from their perspective to help them. Taking that time to imagine myself in their shoes is the only way I can really weigh how they are feeling. Without doing so I may only push them away and make their problems worse. I need to be moved with compassion both to their suffering and to the real loss change brings, even positive changes. I need to face that looking our problems head-on can be painful and that I am asking someone to truly do something very hard. I need to realize how truly scary changing the status quo can be, even if the status quo is bad. What a rich and a challenging call!
Psalm 99 calls for praise for God because of how God forgave, bolstered up, and worked through those who went before us. What a significant and important thing for which to praise God. One of the most painful realizations on entering adulthood was how broken, frail, and sinful were so many of the people whose life and influence had paved my way to my faith and calling. I remember being deeply hurt by folks who misunderstood how my calling shaped up because of how it led to stances of inclusion and justice that did not fit how they understood Christianity. I also remember the disappointment I felt on learning of family members and mothers & fathers of the faith from my childhood who had greatly failed to live out the life of Christ in significant ways because of their own brokeness and frailty. In seminary I learned of the great sins of men and women like Luther, Calvin, Dr. King, and others who I viewed as great bright lights of faith. How this psalm speaks to that experience in my life. I learned, too, of the same flaws in Bible writers and how sometimes their own shortcomings and small-mindedness even influence this oh-so-holy text. Those examples all can remain bright lights for me, though. They can do so because those in that great cloud of witnesses around me and before me were, like me, broken in their own way and given to frailty. Yet God’s love was enough, enough to forgive them, and turn their lives to the good. God does not call the perfect, nor use the already arrived. This psalm reminds me what was so discouraging early in my faith journey and ministry is a word of hope for me. I, too, am frail, broken, and often wrong. I, too, have made huge mistakes, and, honestly, I will make even more. And God’s grace is big enough. God’s love is embracing enough. And guess what? It’s that way for you too, and for all who live on God’s earth, or have passed beyond the circle of time. Hallelujah!