Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Psalms: Blueprint of Ecstasy, Agony & Reality

When I tell people that the Psalms is my favorite book in the Bible, I get strange, distrustful looks as if I had told them that I prefer kale to cheesecake.  I don't know if most people don't get the psalms or they approach them with the same dislike that they would poetry, as most complain that poetry is too hard to understand.  What they don't get is that poetry isn't about understanding, it's about feeling.  So, too, are the Psalms. The Psalms express our emotions before God.  Many find that uncomfortable.  But we shouldn't. As believers, we should believe strongly in honest confession (Just read a Psalm like the 38th one can see this, as it is brutally honest but also shows that we are never alone).  Because the Psalms deal with emotions (loneliness, love, delight, fear, grief, and joy) they have an inexhaustable depth to them.

The Psalms deal with reflection, with woundedness, with fears, with doubts, with struggles, and with worship.  They are both poetry and prayer, laments and love songs.  All of them are an honest opening of the heart to God.  Many are uncomfortable with that. As Walter Brueggemann wrote in his book Spirituality of the Psalms, "We have believed that faith does not mean to aknowledge and embrace negativity."  The Psalms burst that wide open.  Many confront us at our weakest, our darkest, our loneliest, our most frightened.  But we need to face this just as much as we do the joy and the success.  Brueggemann also writes, "The dominant ideology of our culture is committed to continuity and success to the avoidance of pain, hurt, and loss."  The Psalms shows that we cannot be whole, cannot be healed, unless we deal with both.  That's also why the Psalms can give us such comfort when we are in the midst of trials and hurts that cannot be dismissed by offering someone a mere encouraging word or a cheap platitude.

What the Psalms do not do is sugarcoat or gloss over any of reality.  When Christ cries out from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" he is crying out from the Psalter (Psalm 22 to be exact). It doesn't get any more raw and real than that moment. Was there a greater, more heartwrenching sorrow in all of history?

And the Psalms have been a great source of consolation for those who are in the depths of the pit, who are struggling with depression, who are watching a loved one die, who are seeing their marriage crumble because they give voice to the wrenching of our hearts by our circumstances. The Psalms go beyond the surface to where we are most wounded. During these times, we will find recognition, wisdom, and healing.  Oftentimes, the Psalms give us hope during the heartbreak. It reminds us that, despite our circumstances, God is still in control.

In 1983, on their album War, U2 recorded their version of the fortieth Psalm entitled "40 (How Long)." When asked why he did this, Bono described the Psalms as "honest language with God."  He went on to say, "What's so powerful about the Psalms are, as well as they're being good gospel and songs of praise, they are also the blues. It's very important for Christians to be honest with God, which often, you know, God is much more interested in who you are than who you want to be."

Yes, the Psalms not only portray where life occurs, raw and ragged, but, more importantly they show that even in the depths, one must cry out, even question, but, ultimately, praise God. They show triumph and despair, longing and loss, loneliness and love, gladness and sorrow.  The gamut of human experience is there and God approves, even going so far as to call David, who wrote many of the psalms, a "man after His own heart."  In his book Reflections of the Psalms, C.S. Lewis wrote, "The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express the same delight in God which made David dance."

How many of us come to the Psalms with that same sense of delight and joy and pure worship that made David dance in exultation of God?

Do we feel the same delight a young child would upon entering Toys R Us?

Just read Psalm 145 and read those words as a song of celebration:

I will exalt you, my God and King,
and praise your name forever and ever.
I will praise you  every day;
yes, I will praise you forever.

This was David's favorite Psalm.  It was a psalm of adoration and praise.  It was the last one he wrote and he dwells on God's goodness, mercy, and compassion.  This one was a call to worship.  

As singer/songwriter Sandra McCracken said, "The Psalms . . . point more personally and intimately than other books in the scripture to who we are and who God is."  That is why they are not only great ways to worship God in song, but also they are great for praying.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "The only way to understand the Psalms is on your knees, the whole congregation praying the words of the Psalms with all its strength." Bonhoeffer believed that to pray the Psalms was a way to "recover the meaning of prayer." He even calls the Psalms the "prayerbook of the Church."

Eugene Peterson said that the Psalms "get us praying when we don't feel like it, and they train us in prayers that are honest and right." The Psalms give us the words to pray when we cannot find the words. I know there have been times in my own life where the Psalms were the only prayers I could muster as my own words would not come.  During those times, just like David, I could call out, "Hear me, Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy" (Psalm 86).

Thomas Merton said that the Psalms "enable us to surrender ourselves to God."  As Psalm 37:7 tells us, "Surrender yourself to the Lord, and wait patiently for him"  Surrender in Hebrew means to be delivered up, to be present, so that we can be encompassed by God, like a shield.  When we surrender ourselves to Him, God surrenders Himself and embraces us.  This surrender brings us into deeper intimacy with God.  The Psalms can help usher ourselves into that moment of surrender. Only in our surrender will we know real strength.

I love what Sandra McCracken said, "The Psalms are by nature invitational."  This means that they draw us in. They invite us. And in their invitation, they pierce our hearts with their honesty and lift our souls by their desire to praise an infinitely loving God.

It is the one book of the Bible that I read a chapter of every day and, when I reach the last one, I go back and start the book over again.  They reach a place in me that no other in scripture does.  As Merton stated so rightly,  that when we realize just who God is and how much He loves us, " . . . the only possible reaction is a cry of half-articulate exultation that bursts from the depths of our being in amazement at the tremendous, inexplicable goodness of God to men. The Psalms are made up of such cries . . ."

Is it any wonder then that I love and return to this book again and again with such fervent passion?

Sandra McCracken's "My Soul Finds Rest" based on Psalms 62-63:

Audrey Assad's "I Shall Not Want" based on the 23rd Psalm:

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