My chosen title for this post is my attempt to define the Psalms, which is the book of the Bible being explored in this year’s Symposium.I spent yesterday getting to know the Psalms in a way that I never thought possible…
The opening worship of the day was based on Psalm 1. And what better way to begin than at the beginning…
Mary Hurst began her sermon by speaking of a book of letters that she picked up from a table and started reading. When she realised that she did not know anything of the relationship of the people contained within these letters nor the context in which a number of they were written, she decided to return to the beginning of the book when things soon became a lot clearer!
And the Psalms are no different.
The Psalms are a collection of intimate relationships where delving in at some random point along the way can lead to confusion. We need to know the full story…
Psalm One is an invitation to a relationship, a covenantal relationship where we are called to ‘delight in the law of the Lord and meditate upon it day and night’ where ‘the Law’ is the Torah-story of that relationship, that bond, that romance, the covenant that binds us to God. We are called to remember that vow and delight in it.
When the word ‘meditation’ is mentioned these days, there is, for some, amusing images of the lotus position, or balancing on one foot or, in my case at least, wobbling all over the floor and eventually falling flat on my face! But here, to meditate is to keep speaking of that bond over and over again; to murmur it again and again to ourselves, thus reminding us of that special relationship.
As you do this, you become like a tree that has not just been planted in the ground, but as the original Hebrew translates, transplanted into rich, fertile soil by streams of water where your bark sparkles with light and your rich fruits are yielded in season.
We have our own Psalms – our own words which connect us to God. They are like the first love letter written between two people – to anyone else outside that partnership, the letter may not make any sense at all. This is why it is important that when it is shown to someone else that it is explained; it is set in context – the scene is set, which marks the beginning of that beautiful relationship…
From here we were given pens and paper to write our own letter to God, which we addressed to ourselves, sealed in an envelope and placed back into a basket. I don’t know if I’ll ever see that letter again, but unless I explain it to the reader, it will not make any sense to them.
As a minister, it is SO important that one sets the scene of the Scripture being discussed. Many are good at exegesis of the Word, many are good at parsing the Word…but what we are called to do is set the context, allow others to see the characters involved and the relationship between those contained within the text in order that they too may be equally connected.
The Psalms – the connecting tissue of community through which we are grafted into the body corporate…
From here, I spent most of the day in a seminar led by John Bell, where we discussed ‘The Pastoral Resources of the Psalms.’
The Psalms – a collection of poems with an incredible variety of subject matter and emotions including puzzlement, trust, abandonment, delight, recovery, joy of liberation and salvation, complaint, aspiration and desire to name but a few… Through these poems, we are given, to quote John, ‘a vocabulary of pain’. Through our membership of the body of Christ, we, through the Psalms, join in the pain of our brother and sisters in other parts of society; there is a sense of corporate ownership.
We sang a number of Psalms written by John Bell as well as several found in the new Psalter – Psalms for all Seasons. While singing, there were Psalms where I was filled joy and other where I just wanted to cry; Psalms where I sang in delight for what God had given the world and others where I demanded to know how long people were to suffer.
The highlight of the day for me was being introduced to a Psalm, which is not included in the lectionary so is seldom touched. Psalm 88 – a Psalm which breaks the norm. There is no resolution, just a feeling of abandonment and absolute sadness and despair.
LORD, you are the God who saves me;
day and night I cry out to you.
May my prayer come before you;
turn your ear to my cry.
I am overwhelmed with troubles
and my life draws near to death.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like one without strength.
I am set apart with the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
who are cut off from your care.
You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily on me;
you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
You have taken from me my closest friends
and have made me repulsive to them.
I am confined and cannot escape;
my eyes are dim with grief.
I call to you, LORD, every day;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you show your wonders to the dead?
Do their spirits rise up and praise you?
Is your love declared in the grave,
your faithfulness in Destruction?
Are your wonders known in the place of darkness,
or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
But I cry to you for help, LORD;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why, LORD, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?
From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
I have borne your terrors and am in despair.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
You have taken from me friend and neighbor—
darkness is my closest friend.
Unlike most Psalms where you would turn the page and see ‘Yet you did x and y and everything turned out fine’, this one ends unresolved. Here the Psalmist is saying that his life is in a hell of a mess and no one, including God, seems to be listening.
John went on to tell the story of a wee Glasgow woman who was in a a group discussing this Psalm. While everyone else felt deflated and saddened, this woman said that she thought it was fantastic! She proceeded to say something that I know will stick with me for a long time to come – You wouldn’t ask these questions or make these pleas unless you believed that someone was listening to you…
We live in a world where people are angry. We live in a world where many will choose to avoid people who churn out trite answers to life-affecting questions. And that is the beauty of Psalm 88, because we see that the Psalmist is not merely seeking answers but pleading to be heard in heaven, which for many, to quote Anne Zaki, is regarded as a wall of blue and white that is impossible to climb over.
‘If we are heard then we can heal’.
Thanks for surviving to the end of the post! More soon!