Friday, June 25, 2010

Loving the Psalms

At my previous campus, the Gideons visited on a day in September. One day I chatted with one fellow as he and his buddy distributed little green Bibles containing the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs. I had a cup of coffee in hand and we joked that they could witness better if I’d buy them some coffee, too.

I don’t like the thought of abbreviated Bibles, but on the other hand, if you’d distribute any other 2000-page book to a passerby and say, “You should read this, it will help you,” he or she would probably say, “Um, yeah, right.” Or, the 2000-page book would be cheerfully accepted and placed unread upon the shelves. The “little green Bibles,” as I call them, concede to the reading habits of many of us: we love the New Testament and the Psalms. (For my reading habits, I need larger print, but that’s another issue …)

Many of us do, indeed, turn frequently to the psalms. Think of times of your life when you needed the psalms: 77 or 143 for confidence, 23 and 121 for peace, 150 for joy. Read Psalm 3 or 46 when you’re afraid, 38 when you feel tempted, 109 when you need vindication, 34 when you have sorrow, and 142 when you’re overwhelmed. Psalm 25 (one of my “yellow” scriptures) is a good all-around prayer. Psalm 19 and 104 are wonderful praises for the natural world. Psalm 88 is for someone close to death, 130 for someone deeply burdened, 90 for someone in “existential” anxiety, 40 for a person thankful for deliverance, and … many more! Recently a friend quoted Psalm 55:6 for her father’s obituary notice. Psalm 51 is a classic of bitter regret for sin:

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you. (vss. 10-13)

I wouldn’t want to say that you haven’t really experienced the amazing peace of forgiveness if you haven’t first felt in your heart the awful ache of sin—the sin that has hurt people, made a mess of things, and even made you afraid for your eternal destiny. I won’t want to make such an equation. Nor would I, for obvious reasons, recommend sin as a prelude for a relationship to God (Romans 6:1-2). But Psalm 51 is a wonderful assurance when you’ve stumbled. (Sometimes we stumble publicly, as did David, sometimes our failures are comparatively private but our consciences dog us.) What the psalm may lacks, though, is a very strong assurance of God’s forgiveness, which, after all, hard to see if you’re troubled.

Psalm 73, a poem about doubts and struggles rather than a moral sin, provides that needed assurance.

When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,
I was stupid and ignorant;
I was like a brute beast towards you.
Nevertheless I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand…
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (vss. 21-23, 26).

That “nevertheless” might be one of the best single words in the Bible. It's the Gospel. The word affirms God’s continual presence regardless of our human feelings (in this case, bitterness about the apparent unfairness of life). After all, our feelings are not always a suitable barometer for our relationship with God, and in fact, the psalmist perceived himself in a spiritually difficult place (vss. 2-3). 1 John similarly affirms in a lovely way, "And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything" (3:19-20). We have confidence because God’s initiative and care are greater than we can dream.

The psalms also remind us of personal associations: the people and places of our lives. Number 100: I think of a church where I served as a student pastor in Connecticut. I remember the interior—so typical of turn of the century Romanesque churches—and the wide fellowship hall where folks gathered.

Psalm 23 … I walked home way too late one night. I was fourteen or fifteen. The road’s darkness exacerbated my anxieties of being in trouble. A streetlight caused the old Illinois Central railroad sign to cast a long, creepy X-shaped shadow along my path. Not the “shadow of death,” but I did pray the twenty-third psalm, memorized in Sunday school a few years before.

The same psalm … A don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss it country lane near Brownstown, Illinois, leads along the wooded banks of small Sand Run creek. When my family owned that property, I loved walking back there, sometimes barefoot. I loved the “still waters” of the winding creek and did, indeed, feel that God restored my sense of well-being.

Psalm 45: song for a royal wedding. I took two college classes with an excellent writing teacher, Elva McAllaster, who significantly inspired my career. I found her grave recently in Greenville, Illinois, and saw “Ps. 45:1” carved by her life dates. Later, I found the verse, which seemed perfect:

My heart overflows with a goodly theme;
I address my verses to the king;
My tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

Psalm 8: that song reminds of several beautiful places where the stars on clear nights were gorgeous. Over time, I came to prefer Psalm 104 for its greater specificity, the beauty of nature which God preserves and guides. But Psalm 8 captures the awe in fewer verses. Psalm 50?

I will accept no bull from your house (verse 9: RSV).

I’m being lighthearted now, but the verse reminds me of a time, at my divinity school, when a graduate assistant wrote that verse on a student’s wordy paper.

All the psalms but 90 contain words of praise, and even 90 does not fall into total despair, since the psalm remains a prayer to God. How the psalms reflect our own experiences: trouble and panic followed by relief, sickness followed by health, doubts followed by faith, lack of understanding followed by clarity. The psalms range among joy, despair, panic, childlike thankfulness, noble emotions, and revenge. What might happen if our church prayers, or even our private prayers, were as forthright as these? Martin Luther once wrote, “Where does one find finer words of joy… where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness … everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation psalms and words that fit his case, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake."(1) John Calvin wrote, “the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”(2)

1. Luther’s Works: Word and Sacrament (Philadelphia: Muhlenburg Press, 1960); Volume 35, pages 255-256.

2. Commentary on the Book of Psalms, by John Calvin (Eerdmans, 1949), I, page xxxvii. I first used both this quotation and note 2 in my article “The Psalms: An Overview,” Adult Bible Studies, June-July-August 1996 (Nashville: Cokesbury), pages 5-8 (quotes are from on page 5)

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