Not only do the Psalms reflect the fullness of our inner landscape, the breadth of our emotions, as part of who we are not to be feared but instead places in which we can find Christ already at work and present, it also paints a picture of the shape of our lives.
Walter Bruggemann, United Church of Christ minister and theologian, beautifully paints this picture in his The Spirituality of the Psalms. In this work, Bruggemann argues that the Psalms are structured around the shape of human life –orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. The psalms taken on this shape in response to the people of the book, Israel, experiencing a journey of life in the holy land, exile, and return to rebuild their community again after exile. This movement anticipates the story of Jesus in which he lives, is crucified and buried, and rises again on Easter morning.
Psalms of orientation reflect our experience of knowing life as making sense, where right and wrong are clear, and we can trust our lives as safely held by God and others. Such psalms reflect an innocence, idealism, and naiveté that is good in its time and place. Yet the pain, heartache, and sorrow of life often shatters such an experience.
Psalms of disorientation reflect the experience of utter alienation with ourselves, God, and others that happen when the rules and doctrines with which we guide our lives fall apart. Anyone who has gone through deep loss due to the death of one you love, to disease, to a career falling apart, knows exactly what this is like. Many of the psalms express just such an experience and, as one in grief or trauma does, rail out with anger, despair, questioning, and sadness. Such psalms often accuse God, or beg God to punish those who hurt them. Others cry out in despair, many full of hopelessness, for rescue.
Psalms of reorientation come as one, in the midst of such suffering, has found the light of God’s presence again. Sometimes this comes through healing, deliverance, and rescue from the situations one faces. Other times it is through a change of perspective in which the experience of pain becomes a teacher, the heartache a kind of training in a new way of life. In either case, these prayers reflect a return to a life that makes sense, yet which carries within it not naiveté but a depth of meaning. At times one even returns to faith claims and values which sounded empty in one’s time of disorientation but not suggest a depth and meaning one could not have known beforehand.
In my passing through the grief of losing my late wife, I can see myself having moved through these phases of life. An innocence of new love. The feeling my life and very self had torn apart and the road-map I had found with God to traverse life was no longer a guide. And now, a sense of again being on journey with God on a life-giving path, but with lessons my pain has taught me and deep gratitude for life itself.
The fact that such a breadth of human experience are reflected in the Psalms suggests that whether you are a point where the world makes sense and God appears in God’s good heaven, at a point where life seems to be unravelling and Jesus on the cross did you feel you must cry “my God, my God why have you forsaken me?”, at a point in which you only see darkness and hell, a point where you are rebuilding your life, or a point of renewed meaning and purpose, God is present there. You can embrace this full experience – of joy, of pain, of renewal, of heartache, of love, of loss – as a place where God is present. Whatever feelings that come to you – and even numbness, anger, heartache – can be teachers to you as you learn to embrace that experience as including in it the presence of God.
Ironically, the Psalms, from which Jesus’ words “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me” came, suggest even our experience of not being able to feel or sense God’s presence is a place in which God dwells. Such dark nights of the soul, if we will sit with them, can on the other side of our pain, become schools of deeper compassion and spirituality.
This also teaches me when I must sit with people in their pain not to push them too quickly to joy, nor when one is celebrating to too quickly burst their bubble by dragging them down to what I think is reality. Often the best way to help another is to enter into their world, whether it be joyful and celebratory or deeply heartwrenching.
In my work as a chaplain, often this means holding one’s hand and listening without judgment to a person’s helplessness. As a friend it may be sitting with someone as Job’s friends did, while they sit in the ash-heap, patiently accepting their screams of anguish and anger as a holy place for them, while refusing to condemn them or answer their questions as Job’s friends sadly did.
It means accepting that where another is may be exactly where they need to be. My role is to join them there and, as possible, open my eyes to where God is in this experience. As I sit with them and listen, trusting God to be present, my simple presence can help them awaken to the fact that God is there. And as I point whether by words or simple actions to this reality, I can help them see what I am seeing – the nearness of God in their experience even of God-forsakeness.
Your progressive redneck preacher,