This week we continue our journey through the Psalms as a way to let our prayers be formed by the longings, praises, songs and laments of our ancestors. And as I talked about last Sunday, I think one of the most remarkable things about the Psalms is that they are so raw and human. These are not sanitized and strange words that are irrelevant to our human experience and keep God at arms length. Rather, these are our gut responses to God that draw us into the depths of relationship in the midst of our gritty, wonderful and often painful human experience.
For the Psalms are a mix of poetry and prayer. Far from decorative or surface ideas, the language of poetry calls us into the depths. Eugene Peterson in his book Answering God: The Psalms as Tools For Prayer says, “Poetry grabs for the jugular. Far from being cosmetic language, it is intestinal. It is root language. Poetry doesn’t so much tell us something we never knew as bring into recognition what is latent, forgotten, overlooked, or suppressed.”
The Psalms text is almost entirely in this kind of language. As we read the Psalms, we aren’t looking primarily for ideas about God, or for direction or moral conduct.
We are looking to find the experience of being human before God exposed and sharpened. To be laid bare intimately and honestly before the God of the universe who knows our name.
And this can be daunting for us. We are all too accustomed to talking about God rather than talking to God. The Psalms invite us to move beyond these cerebral discussions to deal with the very viscerally felt prayers of our humanity.
The psalms are disturbing if you read them—all of them. It’s easy to take the familiar comforting ones at face value. We love Psalm 23 speaking about our Good Shepherd and Psalm 145 speaking of our God of compassion. But what about the cries of despair, outrage and vengeance? "How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever?" (Psalm 113:1) "Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?" (Psalm 139:21), even venomous words, "Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!" (Psalm 137:9)
At first, these words are offensive and off putting. How is it possible that they ended up in our sacred text? And yet we must let go of such romantic notions to catch God's nearness to us in the thick of our human flailing. Walter Brueggemann offers a framework for understanding the whole book of Psalms. And while not every psalm can be fit into a neat category, the majority of the psalms can be viewed in one of three ways: Psalms of Orientation, Disorientation and Reorientation.
It is easy to understand the Psalms of Orientation. These are the Psalms we have come to know and to love. These are the Psalms when life goes as we expect it to and when life is ordered by God's ways. Psalms of blessing and gratitude and worship to our God of creation.
But it is much more disconcerting to read the Psalms of Disorientation. These Psalms are the reaction of the faithful to God when the world they once knew is broken. When life doesn't go as planned and God's goodness seems elusive. When the city of God Jerusalem falls to conquering Babylon, you don't sing Psalms of God's goodness. Rather, you weep, you cry out in outrage and you lament. Here, we are not so concerned whether the content is ethical or not, but we allow ourselves to be moved by these words that reflect the pain of a people engaging with their God in world-shattering circumstances.
Finally, there are the Psalms of Reorientation. The Psalms of Reorientation are the words of people who have experienced a miracle, against all odds. They are gasps of thankfulness when the impossible breaks through. They are whispers of delight when the unimaginable has happened. God has broken into time and space and done something that they could not have anticipated and certainly could not have created.
“Even in a world demystified and reduced, grace intrudes and God makes all things new,” Spirituality of The Psalms, Walter Brueggemann
These are the Psalms of people who have been to hell and come out the other side. Psalms of amazement, wonder and gratitude.
As I consider the Psalms, I am increasingly convinced that they are necessary for our formation. For we are all too prone to keep God at a distance and to find our prayers stale and irrelevant compared to the evocative range of our human emotion. But the Psalms teach us that God is found at the very core of our human experience. There is no need for editing, stuffing or distancing. God is near and hears our cries of lament as well as our songs of adoration. So whether you find yourself in a time of orientation, disorientation or reorientation, may you be inspired and buoyed by the honest and raw faith in these prayers of our ancestors.
by Jessica Ketola