This morning our readings, prayers, and hymns all speak to the strength and power of relationships with and through God and one another.
They speak of relationships that ebb and flow with life’s circumstances and they speak of how our relationships with God can be tested and found to be solid and enduring.
We began our service with a psalm of longing for relationship with God, relying on a metaphor for God as provider of life giving waters for ourselves when we feel as vulnerable as deer in the headlights of life’s challenges.
From there, we moved into a psalm of praise and thanksgiving, of trusting in God’s Word for us in scripture as guide and lamp for our feet.
Our readings from scripture this morning also speak to the strength and power of relationship with God through family and neighbour.
This also led us into another psalm of praise and thanksgiving for God’s overarching goodness in our lives and in the world.
Before our service ends this morning, we will share in several other psalms that speak to our need for God’s guidance and protection using metaphors of shepherd parent, and eagle.
But, what are these prayers and poems we call the Book of Psalms?
Why do we not refer to them more in our worship services?
In our denomination, the United Church of Canada, psalms are typically offered as a sung response to the reading from the Hebrew Scripture texts. Occasionally we preach on them but most often they function as a bridge between the foundational texts and the good news in the gospel.
This is our loss in that we don’t often get to plumb the depths and breadths of the psalms.
Even today, our choices of psalms have mostly focused on praise and thanksgiving rather than on lament or trust.
This is partly due to the nature of the scripture texts on offer today and the season in the church calendar called ordinary time.
For example, a particularly apt time of the year to focus more fully on the psalms might be the Lenten season when our goal is to walk to the cross with Jesus.
Jesus, himself, quotes the psalmist in the 27th chapter of Matthew’s gospel as he comes to his passion on the cross.
According to the author of the Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is heard to quote a psalm of lament when he calls out mournfully:
“My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 27)
Again in Luke 23, we are told, that Jesus’ words “Into your hands I commend my Spirit” also speak to the pathos of the situation.
It’s clear then from these two examples, that there’s a treasure of resources available to us for communicating our feelings and our needs to God found in the Psalter!
The Psalter itself consists of 150 psalms or ‘songs’ thought to have been used as the hymnary of the ancient Israelites.
About 50% of the Psalms are associated with our faith ancestor, David, who started his life out first as a shepherd, then a soldier and a musician. Eventually, David became a king whose songs were sung whenever people gathered for worship.
Against that backdrop, 8 different genres of psalms or ‘hymns’ emerged.
Ranging from themes of enthronement, instruction, wisdom, and historical psalms, there’s enough psalms for our consideration that we could spend a whole season of worship exploring them!
But for today, we have chosen to focus more broadly on a few of psalms emphasizing trust, praise and thanksgiving, and lament.
In our postmodern context some might say that the archaic and poetic language of the psalms make them less accessible.
However, according to Eugene Peterson in his book, “ThE MESSAGE//REMIX THE BIBLE IN CONTEMPORARY LANGUAGE”, the psalms were thought to be helpful tools for training the faithful to talk with God when things were great, when things were dicey, and even when life completely fell apart (see page 712).*
Given how similarly fragile living in our postmodern/post Christendom context, it feels to me as though we, here and now, could put the psalms to the same good use as our ancient forebears did.
Right here and right now, in the moments of everyday living, whether things are going well, or when things are dicey, or most particularly, when life seems to be completely falling apart, w can turn to our psalms of trust, praise and thanksgiving, or lament to bring us into closer relationship with our God, the Holy One who also longs for relationship with us, here and now this very moment.
Eugene Peterson is not the only biblical scholar who lifts up the use of psalms as prayer tools.
Walter Bruggeman (another well known American biblical scholar) also describes the psalms as tools for informing our prayer lives.*
When life feels trustworthy we might easily orient our prayers towards God.
When life throws us a curveball that disorients our prayers, we can turn to the psalms of lament for comfort and conversation with God.
When life gets back on a more even keel and we feel more re-oriented to our relationship with God, we have our psalms of praise and thanksgiving.
The good news for today is this:
The ancient songs and poems of the Psalter can and do provide us prayer tools for strengthening our relationship with God. Our task? To seek them out, practice and use!
There is so much more waiting to be discovered in the 150 Psalms found in our canon on scripture!
The other good news?
These deeply experiential and sometimes gritty resources, ones that bring comfort, healing, and hope when despair rocks our world, when new life emerges when none was expected, or when we come through times of deep crisis only to discover that despair does not have the last word are easily accessible and are only as far away as our fingertips can reach to that beloved bookshelf!
Come then, let us continue our worship in response to this good news as we sing together, a beloved favourite psalm of deep trust in relationship with God found at VU 747 “The Lord is My Shepherd”.
THE MESSAGE//REMIX THE BIBLE IN CONTEMPORARY LANGUAGE, Eugene Peterson, NAVPRESS, Discipleship, 2003
The Message of the Psalms, A Theological Commentary, Augsburg Old Testament Studies, Augsburg Press Publishing, 1985, 2016