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Making the Psalms Our Own

The words of the psalmist slowly seep into the consciousness of those who pray them. “As David confesses his sins, those who pray with him confess their own.”

In our first apartment as a married couple, one of the things I set out on the living room coffee table was a book on the psalms. It was stylized as a kind of first-aid collection for the soul: “If you are feeling troubled, read Psalm 3. If you need forgiveness, read Psalm 51 . . .”

I was interested, at the time, not in actually learning from the psalms as much as convincing my guests of my religious acumen.  Besides, the colors on the book’s front cover fit right in with the rest of the apartment’s décor. 

Turns out, however, that my little flirtation with the psalms was not wasted. I did reach into the medicine chest from time to time, pulling out balm to sooth life’s wounds or applying a little peppermint for rejuvenation.  At the same time, the contours of my spiritual life were being formed by the weekly Sunday recitation of the psalms in church, whether or not I comprehended their full intent or knew from whence they came.

We frequently imitate that with which we become most familiar. That is why the ancient church prayed the psalms again and again, points out Renovare’s Chris Hall in The Psalms: Our Prayer Mentor. “As we pray the psalms, the dispositions of the psalmist become our own,” he says. Repetition of the psalms is a gift of the monastic community – where the entire Psalter is sometimes prayed every day – to the larger church. 

The words of the psalmist, says Hall, slowly seep into the consciousness of those who pray them. “As David confesses his sins, those who pray with him confess their own.”

Thus, the particular-ness of the psalms’ universality doesn’t just teach us; it shapes us.

The Psalter becomes the prayer of the individual who reads it, said Athanasius in his Letter to Marcellinus.  “In the other books of Scripture we read or hear the words of holy men as belonging only to those who spoke them, not at all as though they were our own; and in the same way the doings there narrated are to us material for wonder and examples to be followed, but not in any sense things we have done ourselves.” 

With the psalms, however,  “It is as though it were one’s own words that one reads; and anyone who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts.”

Furthermore, the Psalter can be likened to a garden with a panoply of specimens. The collection of psalms, says Athanasius, “Is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also some of all the rest.”   

 Let whoever reads this Book of Psalms take the things in it quite simply as God-inspired; and let each select from it, as from the fruits of a garden, those things of which he sees himself in need. For I think that in the words of this book all human life is covered, with all its states and thoughts, and that nothing further can be found in man. For no matter what you seek, whether it be repentance and confession, or help in trouble and temptation or under persecution, whether you have been set free from plots and snares or, on the contrary, are sad for any reason, or whether, seeing yourself progressing and your enemy cast down, you want to praise and thank and bless the Lord, each of these things the Divine Psalms show you how to do, and in every case the words you want are written down for you, and you can say them as your own.

 

This week concludes our study of the psalms.  However,  the study will remain on this site for the foreseeable future. On the main page of the study you will find links to each week’s session as well as daily reflections for Holy Week and a bibliography.  Find it here.

As always, we invite your comments and suggestions for future studies. Email to Marjorie George at marjorie.george@dwtx.org or leave a reply below.

Gentle Reading

Sometimes the psalms offer us an invitation to just sit with them.

David Taylor, a professor at Fuller Seminary, recalls a class he took in his own seminary years that was led by Eugene Peterson. After a semester of Peterson’s brilliant teaching, Taylor wanted one take-away for daily living. So he approached Peterson, and the professor gave him this response:  “Tomorrow read Psalm 1. The next day read Psalm 2, then the next day Psalm 3.  When you get to the end, start over.”

And that, says Taylor in a recent interview with Nathan Foster of Renovare, was the start of his lifelong relationship with the psalms. (https://renovare.org/podcast/david-taylor-psalms)

Over the past several weeks in our study of the psalms, we have looked at them in their original contexts. We have categorized them according to their several themes and have attempted to see God at work in our own lives and times through the eyes of the psalmist. 

But the psalms also call us to immerse ourselves in their wisdom from a more contemplative stance. 

In his own discovery of the psalms, Taylor says, “I allowed myself to read the psalms in a sort of non-anxious way, without feeling that acute need to make sense of them.”

There is indeed a case to be made for engaging the psalms in a meditative posture.  Taylor finds in the psalms a call to “the way,” beginning with Psalm 1 (and see Psalm 119). “The ‘way’ is wisdom language,” says Taylor, “and wisdom language is walking language. You go at your own pace and notice things.  It is a sense of a prayerful way of being in the world.”

C. S. Lewis insists that the psalms must be read as poetry, “with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, that are proper to lyric poetry. They must be read as poems if they are to be understood; no less than French must be read as French or English as English. Otherwise we shall miss what is in them and think we see what is not.”

In his book Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis muses that poetry is “a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible” (pg 5).

Joan Chittister adds the genre of music to her reading of the psalms. “Both music and poetry allow us to bring our own meaning to the work and so enlarge the meaning and the consciousness of others,” she writes in Songs of the Heart. The psalms, says Chittister, “are about life, about what it means to be human, what it is to struggle and laugh, to be confused and depressed, to grapple with self-acceptance and strive for enlightenment.  They are about all of us” (pg 1).

No wonder that the psalms are often called “the hymnbook of ancient Israel” or that their primary purpose was as the foundation for  Israel’s worship of their God. One of the quintessential images of the psalmist is David singing them as he played the lyre. 

For Taylor the psalms as music incorporates an entire orchestra.  “All 150 psalms are like 150 musicians all playing this one piece together.” That is part of the deep magic of the psalms, he maintains – they talk to each other. They exist in community.  “The psalms are a world you inhabit with others,” says Taylor. “They provide coherence when nothing holds together.”  That is why psalms of lament exist alongside psalms of praise and joy. “I find myself attended to by all these sounds and all these spaces that make space for all the parts of my life that I don’t often know how to hold together,” says Taylor.

So this is an invitation to meander. To start at psalm 1 and read a psalm a day through to psalm 150, then do it again. Or to let the book fall open where it will, to snuggle down with it in your favorite chair and your morning coffee, to take it to the patio with a glass of wine in the late afternoon.

If you really need a prompt, start at Psalm 23, the most beloved psalm of all. And let it roll over you.  Bring Kleenex.

Psalm 23
A Psalm of David

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2     He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters; 
3     he restores my soul. 
He leads me in right paths
    for his name’s sake.

4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, 
    I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff—
    they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    my whole life long. 

For an introduction to the psalms with previous posts and a bibliography, click here.

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Marjorie George serves the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas as a consultant in Adult Christian Formation. Reach her at marjorie.george@dwtx.org. Or leave a comment below.

Psalms for the Journey

One way to read Psalms 120 through 134 is as a guidebook for the journey.

It is the image of the steps in Canterbury Cathedral that still resonates with me – a tutorial in faithfulness from my pilgrimage to England several years ago.  Canterbury Cathedral of course is incomparable.  The soaring architecture.  The incredible carvings at the hands of master craftsmen. The small altar marking the spot on the floor where Thomas Becket was murdered. 

But it was the steps – the ordinary cement steps leading from the main-floor nave down to the undercroft – that forced me to my knees. Perceptibly worn down and indented at the center, the steps gave evidence of the thousands of feet that had trod that way: Those who relentlessly guarded the faith. Those for whom God’s law was above man’s law. Kings and saints and poets and ordinary people carrying the faith.

In his book that captures that same sense of faithful journey – A Long Obedience in the Same Direction – Eugene Peterson examines 15 particular psalms the Hebrews sang as they made their way to Jerusalem for the great worship festivals. They are known as the Psalms of Ascent, psalms 120 through 134.

Jerusalem was topographically the highest city in Palestine, so the journey was literally uphill. But the history of the Hebrew people also had been a pilgrimage, frequently uphill metaphorically.  Beginning with the call of Abraham out of the land of Ur to travel to a place unknown, the Israelites knew the pilgrimage way.  “The Hebrews,” writes Peterson, “were a people whose salvation had been accomplished in the exodus, whose identity had been defined at Sinai, and whose preservation had been assured in the 40 years of wilderness wandering.” 

All this was acknowledged in their songs as they journeyed to the Temple in Jerusalem, the symbolic throne of God.

Peterson says, “They refreshed their memories of God’s saving ways at the Feast of the Passover in the spring; they renewed their commitments as God’s covenanted people at the Feast of Pentecost in early summer; they responded as a blessed community to the best that God had for them at the Feast of Tabernacles in the autumn.” 

It could be said that a pilgrim is one  who acknowledges and accepts that the spiritual life is a journey. One never arrives but is always moving forward, always deepening the relationship with God, and sometimes running into hostile territory. The psalms remind us that even when the path is thorny, our God walks with us and protects us.

One way to read Psalms 120 through 134 is as a guidebook for the journey. The psalms call the faithful to worship, extol the virtues of community, and warn against the barrenness of worldy ways. They remind believers that the call to follow God is a call to servanthood – both servanthood to God and to one’s neighbors.  They lean on the covenant God made with his people and assure God’s forgiveness. They offer comfort as one is comforted by a caring parent. They are laments and history and praise. 

Most of the 15 psalms are short and pithy, reminiscent of the wisdom of Proverbs. They invite us to add our own voices, to sing the melody of our journey. They are not monuments, said William Faulkner, but footprints. And footprints, says Peterson, show us where we were when we began to move again. They tell the journey my heart acknowledged in the worn steps of Canterbury Cathedral.

This week

Read the 15 Psalms of Ascent, slowly and prayerfully, appropriating what seems right for your journey.

120

121

122

123

124

125

126

127

128

129

130

131

132

133

134

For an introduction to the psalms with previous posts and a bibliography, click here.

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Marjorie George serves the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas as a consultant in Adult Christian Formation. Reach her at marjorie.george@dwtx.org. Or leave a comment below.

The God of Hesed

Sin upon sin. David has succumbed to his human weaknesses, and most of us will cut him no slack.

There is a word that is not often heard outside of seminary classrooms and expensive theological conferences. Pity, because it’s a great word.  The word is hesed, (hes-ed) and like many other grounding words it is so rich, so full, so deep in meaning that is takes half a dozen other English words to define it. When applied to the attributes of God, which is how we most frequently encounter the word, it means God’s love.  But that love enfolds God’s kindness, faithfulness, mercy, loyalty, and steadfastness.

Because there is no exact English equivalent to the Hebrew heed, it has proved hard for Bible translators to render it accurately, says Dr. Iain Duguid in the online essay Loyal-Love.  “Normally, hesed describes something that happens within an existing relationship, whether between two human beings or between God and man. In human relationships, hesed implies loving our neighbor, not merely in terms of warm emotional feelings but in acts of love and service that we owe to the other person simply because he is part of the covenant community. God’s people are to do justly, to love hesed, and to walk humbly with their God (Micah 6:8).

“Yet the most precious use of the word hesed in the Old Testament,” says Duguid, “is as a description of what God does. Having entered a covenant relationship with His people, God bound Himself to act toward them in certain ways, and He is utterly faithful to His self-commitment.”  https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/loyal-love-hesed/

God’s hesed is God living out God’s covenant with his people.  “You will be my people, and I will be your God,” he declares repeatedly through the prophets. God can do no other than to continually call his people into relationship with him. 

And it is to God’s hesed that King David appeals when he finally acknowledges and claims his sin. 

The story is told in 2 Samuel 11-12, and if you have not read it lately, do so now. It is a story of lust leading to a web of dishonesty, connivance, and murder on David’s part.  Having seduced the beautiful Bathsheba, wife of Uriah, one of David’s soldiers who is off fighting on the king’s behalf, David is confronted with Bathsheba’s pregnancy.  To cover his sin, David brings Uriah back from the war, hoping Uriah will sleep with his wife and own the pregnancy for himself.  But Uriah is a loyal soldier, and while his men are still on the battlefield, he eschews the pleasures of his wife and sleeps on the couch. 

David’s plan having been foiled, the king sends Uriah back to the battlefield and tells his general to put Uriah on the front lines, where Uriah will surely be killed. And he is.

Sin upon sin. David has succumbed to his human weaknesses, and most of us will cut him no slack.  Nathan certainly does not when he approaches David as God’s prophet and sets his sin before him. But such is the nature of God that when David concedes his wicked actions and repents, he can stand on the hesed of God. It is how David can say to God, in Psalm 51, “Against you only have I sinned” (vs 4).

The facts of David’s sins are indisputable and irrelevant. God has committed himself to relationship with us and will move heaven and earth, literally, to make it happen. Because we are made in the image of God, we long for that relationship as deeply as does our creator. Everything else is details.

There are seven penitential psalms. We read them as confessional, and that is good.  But if we read them claiming God’s hesed, that is better. 

We can join with King David and implore God:
Have mercy, O God, according to your
Loving-kindness
(Psalm 51:1)
and know that mercy and loving-kindness are forthcoming.  

The Church, in her wisdom and mercy, provides us with an entire season of penitence in Lent. But we need not wait until next February to avail ourselves of the hesed of God.  Especially in this season of coronavirus, when we have been forced to slow down and sit in solitude, feelings we are usually too busy to acknowledge may surface, and we may feel the weight of past mistakes. If that is the case with you, I invite you to pray the Ash Wednesday Litany of Penitence found on page 267 of The Book of Common Prayer, to remember that God has made covenant, and God will be faithful through all eternity no matter how we feel or what we do. God, being God, can do no other. 

This week, read the penitential psalms as the psalmists wrote them, being mindful of God’s hesed.

Psalm

6

32

38

51

102

130

143

Special note: If you are sorely distressed, remember that the Church offers The Reconciliation of a Penitent (page 447 in The Book of Common Prayer). Any priest of the Church can pronounce God’s forgiveness.  A good friend also can listen and assure you of God’s love and mercy, and you can do the same for others. 

For an introduction to the psalms with previous posts and a bibliography, click here. 

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Marjorie George serves the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas as a consultant in Adult Christian Formation. Reach her at marjorie.george@dwtx.org. Or leave a comment below.