Working (and Praying) Through the Psalms

"The collection of the Psalter is not for those whose life is one of uninterrupted continuity and equilibrium. Such people should stay safely in the book of Proverbs, which reflects on the continuities of life. But few of us live that kind of life. Most of us who think our lives are that way have been numbed, desensitized, and suppressed so that we are cut off what is in fact going on in our lives" (Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, 14).

It's not uncommon for me to see someone I know who is going through a challenging situation, ask them how they're doing, and receive "fine" (or "good") as the response. All the while we both know they're not fine, and they certainly aren't good. It's even worse when this interaction happens at church because we've been given tools to help us name and express the grief that ails us - no matter how great or (seemingly) insignificant. One such tools is the Book of Psalms.

I've long heard it said that the Psalms are the "prayer book of the Bible." I assume that saying should be credited to Dietrich Bonhoeffer because he wrote a book with that title, but he certainly wasn't the first to express such a conviction. I'm sure that part of the problem for me is that I have never been part of a Christian tradition/denomination that utilizes the Psalms as a regular feature of the worship gathering. So yes, I heard the idea about the place of the Psalms in the life of faith, but I have yet to see it actually implemented as such.

I sensed Eugene Peterson's assessment was correct when we he said, "If we wish to develop in the life of faith, to mature in our humanity, and to glorify God with our entire heart, mind, soul, and strength, the Psalms are necessary" (Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, 3). So I recently listened to an audio version of the entire book of Psalms in one sitting. Several hours later I realized, much like I did when I tried the same experiment with the book of Revelation, that the compilation was different than I imagined before I pressed play. There were praises that rubbed against the veil of the heavens, and there were laments that buried themselves in the dark places of sheol. There were grand articulations of faith, and there were lucid complaints of doubt. There were personal expressions of fidelity, and there were public declarations of glory. And all these Psalms (150 in all) were sitting there, one beside the other with no particular chronology or apparent rhyme or reason.

Swimming in the sea of Psalms was a challenge, and I didn't see how it could be that so many of my peers so easily referred to them as comprising "the prayer book of the Bible" (it's not that I necessarily disputed that honorary title, it's just that I had neither understood them that way nor seen them used in that way. To be brutally honest, the only time I'd seen/heard the Psalms used was either as part of the OT/NT/Psalms/Proverbs daily Bible reading plan, or as messianic proof-texts that pointed to the coming of Jesus. And the rest, as they say, were just details.

Enter Walter Brueggemann. The first thing he helped me grasp was the structure of the book: "In its present canonical form, the book of Psalms is organized into five 'books' (Pss. 1-41; 42-72; 73-89; 90-106; and 107-150), with each book culminating in a doxology and the whole culminating in a collection of doxologies in Psalms 145-150" (An Introduction to the Old Testament, 277). So there was a rationale for the placement of the Psalms within the context of the whole - that was at least a start!

But how should the Psalms function of the life of a believing person and congregation? Brueggemann responds, "I propose that the sequence of orientation-disorientation-reorientation is a helpful way to understand the use and function of the Psalms" (Psalms and the Life of Faith, 9). Having worked through the texts and given his proposal a great deal of thought over the past months, I am convinced that he's on to something very helpful in deed.

As human beings, churches, and societies, we find ourselves endlessly negotiating our lives between one of those three spaces. The Psalms thus reflect these moves of life as we know it because it reflects life as it was known in ancient Israel; and even though we're separated by many centuries, the human experience is very similar.

In times of orientation, everything makes sense in the routines of our lives. In times of disorientation, the predictable routine has been broken and we sense loss, darkness, and despair which can last weeks, months, or years. In times of new orientation, we are filled with gratitude, wonder, and praise as we realize that God has lifted us out of the pit and set us on a new course that is both similar to and different from the one we were on in our time of orientation.

Here are some examples of each type of Psalm (this list is not exhaustive):
Orientation (the world is well-ordered, reliable, and life-giving to the person of faith):
1, 8, 14, 33, 37, 104, 111, 112, 119, 131, 133, 145

Disorientation (the brokenness of life when it is no longer orderly, but chaotic):
13, 22, 32, 35, 50, 51, 73, 74, 79, 81, 86, 88, 130, 137, 143 (note: every lament Psalm except for Psalm 88 concludes with a prayer of thanksgiving expressing faith that God will rescue us and bring us up from the depths)

Reorientation (the surprising grace of new possibilities, full of thanks and wonder):
23, 27, 30, 34, 40, 65, 66, 91, 100, 103, 113, 117, 124, 135, 138, 150

So back to the person who acts like everything's fine. We have gained two things in hearing about the Psalms and Brueggemann's scheme on how they function: 1) a category for processing the dynamic at play in that interaction, and 2) an example of articulating the pain.

The person in the midst of disorientation has two options: 1) deny the disorientation and act like everything's "fine," and that life is still oriented as it was, or 2) join the cry of distress modeled in the Psalms and remain faithful until the time of reorientation - or new orientation - arrives.

Option 2 is the better option because, as Brueggemann notes, "The Psalms are an assurance to us that when we pray and worship, we are not expected to censure or deny the deepness of our own human pilgrimage. Rather, we are expected to submit it openly and trustingly so that it can be brought to eloquent and passionate speech addressed to the Holy One" (Praying the Psalms, 14).

Related Posts:
Let the Old Folks Speak
Denominations & Unity


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