A Psalm of Conversion

A writer shares this personal story of the importance of the psalms.

As we enter the season of Easter, and then Pentecost, we turn our attention again to the psalms of the Old Testament. Beginning April 27, we will offer God’s People Speak to God, an eight-session study of the psalms. It will be suitable for individuals and small groups, either online or in-person when that option is once again available to us.

On the Introduction to the Study page, you will find background information, a bibliography of resources, and links to reflections on the psalms that we posted during Lent and Holy Week 2020.

Until then, enjoy this contribution from a writer who prefers to remain anonymous.

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My favorite scripture is Psalm is 34:4-6. No one ever really talks about it, so I will. This is a story that I generally don’t tell, but with the way things are going, I believe now is an appropriate time.

Over 20 years ago, I was in the Navy, stationed on Guam. My ship was the USS Frank Cable. I was not a Christian, and I was wild and rebellious.  I did not go to church, and I spent my off-duty time in bars. 

On August 6, 1997, KAL flight 801 crashed into Nimitz Hill; 254 people were on that plane. I had duty that night, so I was on call. When the alarm sounded, we all jumped in to help. Because I had medical training, I was assigned to follow a doctor to the crash site. When we got to ground zero, I climbed down into pitch blackness holding on to a fire hose. It was tied to a wheel well of a truck. The only light came from the fire of the burning plane. It truly looked and smelled like Hell. I followed the doctor from our ship to the triage area. That’s where I would work with the other sailors and first responders to triage and help carry out the survivors on stretchers. I saw a lot of death and destruction that early morning. 

Come daylight, I stood on the hill that I had climbed down earlier. It had been several hours since any survivors were found. I looked around and saw the sadness in my fellow sailors and first responders. That’s when I prayed to God: “You give me one more survivor and you get me. I don’t know how to be a Christian, but I will give it all I got.” 

Thirty minutes later, a shout came from below. The rescuers found not one survivor, but two, and one was a child. They were trapped and surrounded by the dead in the first-class section of the plane, which had not caught on fire. Thankfully, they had no burns or life-threatening injuries.  The Jaws of Life was used to rescue them. The survivors were put in a basket, and then pulled one by one up the hillside to be flown out.

That’s when I became a believer and was baptized in the Pacific Ocean by Chaplain Kenneth Lewis. That’s why I love Psalm 34:4-6. 

 Psalm 34:4-6 King James Version (KJV)
4 I sought the Lord, and he heard me, and delivered me from all my fears.
5 They looked unto him, and were lightened: and their faces were not ashamed.
6 This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.

A Psalm for Easter

Open for me the gates of righteousness;
I will enter them;
I will offer thanks to the Lord.

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; 
his mercy endures for ever.

2 Let Israel now proclaim, 
“His mercy endures for ever.”

14 The Lord is my strength and my song, 
and he has become my salvation.

15 There is a sound of exultation and victory 
in the tents of the righteous:

16 “The right hand of the Lord has triumphed! 
the right hand of the Lord is exalted!
the right hand of the Lord has triumphed!”

17 I shall not die, but live, 
and declare the works of the Lord.

18 The Lord has punished me sorely, 
but he did not hand me over to death.

19 Open for me the gates of righteousness; 
I will enter them;
I will offer thanks to the Lord.

20 “This is the gate of the Lord; 
he who is righteous may enter.”

21 I will give thanks to you, for you answered me 
and have become my salvation.

22 The same stone which the builders rejected 
has become the chief cornerstone.

23 This is the Lord’s doing, 
and it is marvelous in our eyes.

24 On this day the Lord has acted; 
we will rejoice and be glad in it.

A Saturday of Silence

From Psalm 31
In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame; 
deliver me in your righteousness.

Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe,
for you are my crag and my stronghold; 
for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me
(1, 3).

It is a day for quiet.  A time for silence.  A season to take refuge.

It is God’s sabbath, and what a sabbath.  We Western 21st century Christians are accustomed to celebrating sabbath on Sunday, but in Jewish religion and tradition the sabbath day was Saturday. 

The Gospel of Luke records that after Jesus’ death, the women who loved and followed Jesus went with Joseph of Arimathea as he put the body in his own fresh tomb. They saw where the body lay and went home to prepare spices and ointments.  Then they rested because by now it was the sabbath (23:50-56).

About the day after the Crucifixion, the other gospel writers say nothing. They skip from Good Friday to the Day of Resurrection. Earlier readers of scripture would have known why.

If we pause with the women on this Holy Saturday, we will know that God works in the silence of this day. But we must be still to hear him.

 The psalmist sought refuge in God in the psalm we recite today.  With him, in silence we shut out the noise, the temptation, the busy way of the world.  Today we seek a cave in which to hide; today is a day for withdrawing and trusting that even though it does not look like God is in charge, the Almighty One is carrying out his plan of salvation. He is clearing the path that opens the way for us to come to him. He is slashing through the clutter of our lives and knocking down the obstacles. 

In some outrageous way, this virus that has beset us makes it easier. On this particular Holy Saturday, crowds are not rushing to the mall for last minute shopping or bustling about to pick up the Honey Baked Ham. Not that God caused this disease or sent it to us or condones it.  But that even in this devastation God will work, though we may not recognize it in the throes of our despair.

There is a price to be paid to be sure. Tomorrow I will not get to hug my precious grandchildren.  I won’t get to sit with them at Easter dinner and listen to their laughter as they tell us of all the goings-on in their lives.  But one of them will talk me through using FaceTime, and that will have to do this year. 

We do not get to see all the ways God works.  Not on this side of heaven. Perhaps for one day we can stop trying and asking and demanding. Perhaps for this day we can be silent. This is a day for believing that God has not left us alone in our sorrow.  

Tomorrow will look different.

For all of the lectionary readings for Holy Saturday, click here.

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

The Lament of Good Friday

We seek answers. We want explanations that assure us that after all, God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.

Of course, we grieve today.  Of course, Jesus would recall from the cross one of the great psalms of his people – a psalm of lament:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    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;
    and by night, but find no rest
(Psalm 22:1-2).

We seek answers. We want explanations that assure us that after all, God is in his heaven and all is right with the world. “Did God know from the beginning that Jesus was going to die on a cross? Was it God’s plan all along? Ah, then this suffering is justified,” we say. And, gosh, we feel better. 

And while we are questioning the Lord Almighty, let’s get to the bottom of this pandemic that has us all terrified: “How did this happen? Whom shall we blame? Is God really OK that we are not gathering in worship this Sunday to celebrate Easter? Are you kidding me? Did anyone see this coming?”

But finding answers is not the point, says N. T. Wright in an article in Time magazine this past week. “It is not part of the Christian vocation,” he says, “to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain – and to lament instead.”

Perhaps what we need in this season, says Wright, “is to recover the biblical tradition of lament. Lament is what happens when people  ask, ‘Why?’ and don’t get an answer.”

Philip Stevenson, priest of blessed memory, used to say when grieving parishioners asked him, “Why?” that it was the wrong question. Ask, instead, he would say, “Where do I see God in this?”

“The point of lament,” getting back to Wright, “is not just that it’s an outlet for our frustration, sorrow, loneliness and sheer inability to understand what is happening or why. The mystery of the biblical story is that God also laments,” he says. 

What if we turned Psalm 22 around and put it in the mouth of God: 
“My people, my people, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from listening to  me
and the words of my longing for you?”

As Wright points out, God was heartbroken again and again when his own people turned away from him and went a-whoring after other gods, in the words of scripture (judges 2:16). God in Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. God longed to gather Jerusalem to himself “as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (Lk 13:34, Matt 23:37). But Jerusalem did not, would not, listen. 

If there is a time for everything, this is a time for lament. We need not go far to find the words: two-thirds of the psalms are psalms of lament. Yes, yes, we lean forward to the hope of Easter. Yes, we know that death does not have the final say. But if we are going to walk the entire way with Jesus this week, today we lament. 

N. T. Wright concludes his article: “As the spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell.” And out of that, he suggests, may come new hope, new understanding, new possibilities, and new wisdom. 

For the complete N. T. Wright article go here.

For an excellent companion article from the N. T. Wright Online website, go to ntwrightonline.org

For the full lectionary readings for Good Friday, go here.

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