This past Sunday we reviewed Psalm 16 as a way to deepen our understanding and practice of Thanksgiving. And if you are following the Bible reading plan in our Westside Journal, you will be reading Psalms 21-30 this week. So let me say a few things to help you engage the psalms better. The psalms may be one of the most user-friendly sections of the Bible. While we often need some kind of introduction to read other sections of the Bible (the prophetic books for instance), the psalms strike us as deeply human and personal. CS Lewis said that, when we come to read the psalms, “no historical readjustment is required. We are in the world we know” (Reflections on the Psalms).
One of the truths that we learn in the Psalms is this: what is most personal is most universal. All the stuff of life -- the stuff we all know and deeply share -- is here in plain view. And maybe this is why these ancient songs and prayers have such staying power; nothing is abstract or disconnected from real human life. Everything here is human; everything here is personal.
While the Psalms are God’s word to us, the Psalms are also our word to God. In other words, the psalms give us the language of prayer, showing how to pray by giving us the forms to trace over. I believe in the value of pre-formed prayers, not that spontaneity is eliminated, but so that we learn how to escape false piety. The psalms teach us the freedom of radical honesty before God, something we must be shown because we are by nature hiders, religious posers.
What the Psalms can ultimately do is help us recover our humanity before God. Kathleen Norris is a writer on spiritual themes that you will profit from reading (The Cloister Walk, among other books). Her story is one many of us can relate to: growing up with a childhood church experience which never took, wandering around looking for something, eventually coming back to faith through an encounter with another form of Christian spirituality unfamiliar to her – a Benedictine community in Minnesota. Norris was recaptured by Christian faith when she realized that she could learn again what it meant to be Christian, but differently. Among the defining aspects of the Benedictine way which won her over, Norris was attracted to the human earthiness, the devotion to work and hospitality, and the understanding of how persons are formed through regular routine. And, significant to all this was Benedictine devotion to the Psalms as part of their daily rhythm. Kathleen Norris came to see how the poetry, raw humanity, and honest emotion of the Psalms could once again awaken her dormant faith.
If Christianity has become unreal to you, let me suggest that you immerse yourself in the human and hopeful reality that the Psalms represent. Life, pain, joy, enemies, anger, angst, hope, celebration, community – its all there. But the key is that everything is presented to God, who somehow inhabits our words with his presence and peace. And that makes all the difference to living a truly human life.
This Sunday we begin a new series: Jonah: On Being Human. It promises to be a fascinating take on a story that is much more serious than we give credit. Jonah will be our guide on what it means to be a human being before God.
See you this Sunday at 9:29 or 11:11 am.