“Walking The Psalms With Walter”
Chilmark Community Church
November 20, 2016
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
Well – – we are at Thanksgiving Sunday – – preparing to celebrate a national day of gratitude. More than at any other time of the year, the Psalms give us the words that fit the occasion. We don’t often turn to them outside of their occasional use in the liturgy and aside from the best known ones, we may not really know what is in this beautiful prayer book that is almost always right at our finger tips. I have been especially drawn to these ancient poems over the past week.
I’d like to introduce you to another of my “walking buddies” – Walter Brueggemann – – not an actual, physical walking buddy – I met him only once, years ago, but he’s a dear friend and spiritual mentor and companion, nonetheless. He is about my height, and a bit on the stocky side. When I last saw him he was graying and sporting a full beard that did nothing to hide his piercing, energetic black eyes. I have been walking all week with Walter as my guide in my exploration of the Psalms – – these amazing poetic glimpses of human life and anguish and celebration.
In his little book THE MESSAGE OF THE PSALMS Walter identifies three major themes in the Psalms. He calls them poems of orientation, poems of disorientation, and poems of new orientation. He invites us to recognize that The Psalms are a beautiful witness to the fact that “human life consists in satisfied seasons of well being that evoke gratitude for the constancy of blessing… the “Psalms of Orientation” give us words for affirming God’s goodness and reliability and consistency – they bubble with joy, and happiness and delight in well-being.1 Listen to a few verses from Psalm 93:
God acts within every moment
and creates the world with each breath.
God speaks from the center of the universe,
in the silence beyond all thought.
Mightier than the crash of a thunderstorm,
mightier than the roar of the sea,
is God’s voice silently speaking
in the depths of the listening heart.2
Psalms of “orientation” celebrate the daily order of life – the regularities that we experience as reliable and dependable. They often celebrate the created order. These Psalms give thanks to God for ordering and sustaining creation and indeed our very lives. They remind us to give prayers and songs of thanksgiving to God out of sheer gratitude for creation and for everything in life that we enjoy. Listen to these lovely words of gratitude for creation from Psalm 104:
The mountains shelter the wild goats;
rock squirrels dwell in the cliffs.
You created the moon to count the months;
the sun knows when it must set.
You make darkness, it is night,
the forest animals emerge.
The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
The sun rises, they withdraw
and lie down together in their dens.
Humans go out to their labor
and work until it is evening.
How manifold are your creatures, Lord!
With wisdom you made them all;
The whole earth is filled with your riches.
I will sing to you every moment;
I will praise you with every breath.
May all selfishness disappear from me,
and may you always shine from my heart. 3
We sing songs of praise when life is good, ordered, balanced, whole. Our orientation is toward the goodness of God. Joy, well-being, dependability, security, the connections of healthy relationships, enough food on the table, shelter over our heads, the safety of our kids and grandkids, our health….
all of this brings the words “Thank God!” up out of our hearts and to our lips just as they did for the Psalmist.
But, as Walter reminds us: “life also has its seasons of confusion and anguish and hurt and alienation – – suffering and death. These times can evoke feelings of sorrow, fear, rage, self pity, resentment – and for these times the psalmist gives us the psalms of “disorientation” – – poems that match the “ragged disarray”. Psalms of “disorientation” are full of extravagant lament, and abrasiveness – – poetry that helps us to give expression to the sorrow and suffering and anxiety and pain that we endure from time to time….Life is not all equilibrium, coherence and symmetry. Life is also sometimes savagely marked by disequilibrium, incoherence, and asymmetry.4 Life is marked by unwanted surprises like serious illness, the loss of a friend’s child to drug overdose, a costly, leaky roof, the unanticipated pain that follows surgery, the devastation of a nation after a hurricane, the disorienting confusion and anxiety following a national election.
The Psalms give us words to pray when life falls apart. From Psalm 13:
How long will this pain go on, Lord,
this grief I can hardly bear?
How long will anguish grip me
and agony wring my mind?
Light up my eyes with your presence;
let me feel your love in my bones.
Keep me from losing myself
in ignorance and despair.
Teach me to be patient ,Lord;
teach me to be endlessly patient.
Let me trust that your love enfolds me
when my heart feels desolate and dry.
I will sing to the Lord at all times,
even from the depths of pain.5
Walter observes that our hymns most often focus on equilibrium, coherence and symmetry – – all the positive things we attribute to God’s grace and creative goodness. But he also reminds us that “our dependence on the hymns of orientation may deceive and cover over or, worse, ignore, that life in our time is tumultuous, out of balance, and sometimes crazily incoherent.” 6 Psalm 13 that we just heard is a personal lament, but the Psalms also include the lament of the people as they mourn public events of loss. When Israel was in exile, there was tremendous grief. I expect it was not unlike what millions of refugees and immigrants are feeling today as they are uprooted from their homes and their countries by forces far beyond their abilities to change.
Psalm 137 is a lament of an entire people as they mourn a catastrophic public event – their exile in a foreign land:
By the rivers of Babylon –
there we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you.
Perhaps the most familiar personal lament Psalm of disorientation is the one we hear from the lips of Jesus on the cross – the opening words of Psalm 22:
My God, my God, why have you
Why are you so far from helping me, from the
words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day but
you do not answer;
by night, but find no rest.
Walter finds it odd “that the church has continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disorienting.” He writes:” I think the serious religious use of the lament Psalms has been minimal because we have believed that faith does not mean to acknowledge and embrace negativity. We have thought that acknowledgement of negativity is an act of unfaith, as though the very speech about it conceded too much about God’s “loss of control.” 7 But if we are going to live authentic lives, there are times when we absolutely need to name our sorrows, our fears, our disabling events – -and we need safe places in which to do that – – and we need compassionate and receptive ears to receive our complaint. Healers of every stripe affirm that healing begins with naming what hurts. The lament Psalms of disorientation help us to do that – sometimes with dramatic words and images that aren’t even in our prayer vocabularies. Consider these words, also from Psalm 22:
I am poured out like water,
and all of my bones are out of
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
my mouth is dried up like a
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.8
But, as Walter reminds us, the Psalms also attest to the reality that “we don’t take up permanent residence in anguish and alienation. Human life consists in turns of surprise when we are overwhelmed with the new gifts of God, when joy breaks through the despair. Where there has only been darkness, there is light.”9
And so the Psalmist gives us the songs of a new orientation – the songs that we sing when we realize that, indeed, God has heard our cries from the depths of our disorientation. Psalm 30 is perhaps the best example of a song of the new orientation. It tells the narrative of the passage into and out of a time of disorientation – of going into the trouble and coming out of the trouble – whatever it may be:
I thank you and praise you, Lord,
for saving me from disaster.
I cried out, “Help me, dear God;
I’m frightened and have lost my way.”
You came to me in the darkness;
You breathed life into my bones,
You plucked me from the abyss;
You made me whole.
You rescued me from despair;
you turned my lament into dancing.
You lifted me up; you took off
my mourning, and you clothed me with joy.10
We need Psalms with all three themes to help us experience all of life as cut from a whole piece of cloth. We need to affirm the goodness of the order of our lives in the midst of the good times. We need to be able to give a clear loud voice to all the range of negative emotions we feel when life spins out of control; and we need to recognize the new and greater gifts that come from God when we emerge from wherever the stress of disorientation takes us – we need to recognize and give thanks that God does not leave us there. Indeed, we may find ourselves praising God for the gifts that began to take shape even in the midst of the darkest times. Only then do our songs of thanksgiving rise with authenticity and integrity.
I want to close with words from Psalm 149:
Sing to the Lord a new song;
praise him with words and silence.
Praise god through all your actions;
Praise him in sorrow and joy.
Praise God with music and dancing,
with bodies moving in delight.
Let the wise sing out in their freedom;
let the whole earth echo their song.
Let all creatures be peaceful
and walk in the path of true life.
Thanks for letting me share a little of my walk with Walter this week and may you come to the day of Thanksgiving with full hearts wherever you find yourself in the continuum of orientation -disorientation and new orientation. If the truth were known, we occupy these multiple worlds simultaneously most of the time – and God dwells with us wherever we are. Thanks be to God.
1Walter Brueggemann THE MESSAGE OF THE PSALMS A Theological Commentary Augsburg Press, Minneapolis 1984 p. 19
2 Stephen Mitchell A BOOK OF PSALMS Selected and Adapted From the Hebrew; First Harper Perennial Edition, New York, 1994. p.42.
3 Stephen Mitchell, A BOOK OF PSALMS Selected and Adapted from the Hebrew First Harper Perennial Edition, New York, 1994 p. 54
4 Brueggemann p.19
5 Mitchell p. 6
6 Brueggemann p.
7 Brueggemann p.52
8 Psalm 22:14-15 NRSV
9 Brueggemann p. 19
10 Mitchell p.16