I was planning to post a formal introduction to the disorientation theme but it became a bit long and perhaps being more personal and less wordy are of greater value. [The introduction to disorientation is posted under the “Psalms Project” tab.]

Psalm 6 seems to be coming from the perspective of one who is suffering from a serious illness that involves both physical symptoms [v.2,5,7] and mental/emotional/spiritual anguish [v.3,6]; we know now that we are psychosomatic beings and the two are inextricably related. Each of you have your own unique story of this. I have been on a partial medical leave since August due to mental illness and tomorrow I face an appointment with a specialist regarding some concerns about an ultrasound of my abdomen taken before Christmas. I’m nervous and maybe even a bit afraid.

The refrain “How long?” [v.3] appears often in the Psalms of lament. I’m sure that many participants have also asked this question in the midst of their suffering. A paraphrase might be, “What next? Enough already! How much more of this do I have to take? What else can go wrong?” Psalm 6 speaks for all of us who have ever experienced disorientation and suffering of any kind or intensity.

In the midst of difficulty and disorientation it is important to be heard [v.9]. Of course I ask for a quick fix of my problem or for relief from my pain [v.2,4] but even more I want someone to simply be with me and to hear what I am going through, to take me seriously, to stand with me in solidarity. Judging by the 10+ posts on Psalms 3-4, this virtual Psalms congregation is already doing that for each other. In a sense, a human ear is assurance that there is a divine ear.

 

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I have a hard time relating to literal enemies as the psalmist in #3. I don’t think I have a relationship with people I despise so much that I wish God would destroy them but if I think of enemies metaphorically, perhaps this psalm is more identifiable for me. There are diseases that I wish God could eradicate and there are systems and power structures whose “teeth” [power to rip and devour] could gladly be broken!

Psalm 1 is a classic psalm of orientation. To a modern, skeptical, impious mind like mine, some of these psalms seem rather ridiculous if read literally rather than poetically. “Blessed are those who delight in the law of the Lord… whatever they do will prosper.”

“Ya right! My Bible reading is delightful and right on schedule [It’s only January 2 after all!] but I am not prospering: I’m back at a dead end job, I have credit card bills, my kid is sick, and I’m battling depression. God, you promised!”

Let us first determine what psalms of orientation are not. Psalms of orientation like Psalm 1 [Psalm 91 is another good example. “No harm will befall you. You won’t even stub your toe!”] are NOT promises from God that no bad things will ever happen to us or that faithful people will be rewarded by material prosperity and/or spiritual positivity.

God-worshipers go through the same stuff that all people go through. The difference is that we are aware that God is present with us in our experiences; this is what we were just reminded of at Christmas. In the infant Jesus, God came in the flesh—Emmanuel, God with us. Our help comes from God, the Maker of heaven and earth. We are oriented to the reality that God is in control and involved in our lives. We are oriented and secure not because we are sure of ourselves but we trust that God is sure of us. Psalms of orientation are about going to the God we know by faith through Scripture and experience.

Psalms of orientation are about a point of reference that we rely on when circumstances may be chaotic. God intends life for us to “be like a tree planted by the water” or that “everyone would sit under their own fig tree and not be afraid” [Micah 4:4]. Unfortunately, these Psalms of orientation can also sometimes be read as a blessing of the status quo for the privileged minority rather than as a hope for all. Walter Brueggemann writes: “In using these Psalms we must be alert to the slippery ways that creation faith easily becomes social conservatism, which basks in our own well-offness… For we know persons and communities whose experience of disorder and injustice deeply contradicts this faith… These same psalms provide a point of reference even for those who share in none of the present ‘goodies,’ but who cling in hope to the conviction that God’s good intention for creation will finally triumph and there will be an equity and a Sabbath for all God’s creatures.”

What is Psalm 1 about then? Eugene Peterson believes Psalm 1 and 2 are placed deliberately at the beginning of the collection. Psalm 1 gets us ready to pray the words of the rest of the Psalms. The words of the Psalms are not information we collect for an exam or words that prescribe a code of moral behavior, they are words that we ingest for the purposes of forming new life in us. The synonym for “delight” is to meditate. “Meditate (hagah) is a bodily action; it involves murmuring and mumbling words, taking a kind of physical pleasure in making the sounds of the words, getting the feel of the meaning… letting the words sink into our muscles and bones. Meditation is mastication…” says Eugene Peterson.

The image for this meditation is the tree. Peterson continues: “Prayer begins not with what we don’t see, but with what we do see… We are not launched into the life of prayer by making ourselves more heavenly, but by immersing ourselves in the earthy… Praying to God begins by looking at a tree.” Psalms of orientation are about a creation faith.

This year I’m doing something different with my blog. I am using it as a gathering place for reading and reflecting on the Book of Psalms as a virtual collective. If you have been a previous follower you are invited to be part of this collective experiment. If you received an invitation to participate and you accepted the invitation, welcome to my website; feel free to browse previous posts on various topics. If you happened upon the site, welcome to you also! A reading schedule for the year is available when you click the “Psalms Project” tab above.

I have always liked the psalms but my appreciation intensified one spring when I participated in a monastic pilgrimage for two weeks and realized that monks recite the psalms every day, often going through the entire collection in a month. That same fall [2009] I was asked to teach a course on the Psalms and I have been teaching it ever since, even though I am not a biblical scholar. My approach is from the perspective of one who teaches spiritual formation courses. Indeed, the Psalms have been part of the spiritual expression and formation of God’s people for millennia!

In preparation for teaching I read through the Psalms in a different version each summer. It is fine for the Psalms to be used like this in private reading but they were originally composed, collected, revised, and utilized primarily by and for community. This project began a few years ago with a dream to write a yearly devotional book on the Psalms that could be used for “personal devotions” but again I was reminded of what I keep repeating every year in my class: “all psalms have their origin in the worshiping community of ancient Israel” and “are meant to be experienced in community.” I have also become increasingly aware of how the singular voices of educated, white, middle-aged men—that would be me—have dominated the field of theology and spirituality for the entire history of Christianity. If this is to change—and I think it should—my role needs to shift from speaking to facilitating the voices of others. I hope that my fifty odd posts will be outnumbered by the collective voices of 35+ participants [So far almost 2/3 of the participants are women, about 1/3 are under 30, a few are over 65, and a few are people of colour]. We have the communal experience of the Psalms in my classes for a semester but there is something unique about a calendar year and with the magic of the internet we can create a virtual monastic community to reflect on the Psalms for one year. Reading will begin in private but hopefully by knowing that a few dozen others are doing the same thing and by posting thoughts occasionally on the website, it will become a collective reading and reflection.

A very brief history of the Psalms is in order before we begin our journey. The psalm tradition probably began with David’s capture of Jerusalem in 1000 BCE but the golden age of psalm use was after the temple had been built by King Solomon. I will say more about authorship in a later post but for now just note that the Psalms were NOT written by David on a lonely hillside while tending his sheep and strumming his harp! The Psalms were spoken collectively, written down, used and collected, then arranged and rearranged and rewritten over hundreds of years! With the rebuilding of the temple under the Persians, the worship in the temple and the use of the psalms was revived. It is probably during this time [400-200 BCE] that the Book of Psalms as a collection began to take shape. The destruction of the temple in 70 CE ended the ancient psalmic tradition. The context of the Psalms was the messy ordinary life of the Hebrew people who were worried about dangers and droughts and were happy over peace and prosperity. This is human life on our planet, and that is why the Psalms continue to express our own cries today.

 

 

Mary’s Magnificent Protest Song

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.—Luke 1:52

Read: Luke 1:46-55

Reflect: Is the message of Advent becoming clear by now? God’s coming to Earth is about a reversal of status and values. Mary’s song in response to the angel’s announcement continues this theme. Hannah and Mary may seem unlikely singers to be raging against the machine of empirical power, but that is the whole point! God often speaks through the unlikely.

Just as “pride goes before a fall” so the small will be lifted tall. Tommy Douglas was a man of small stature, a small-town Baptist pastor on the Canadian prairies during the Great Depression, yet a few years ago he was voted as the “Greatest Canadian” in a television poll. He once said, “Watch out for the little fellow with an idea.” His idea was that all people, regardless of their wealth or status, should be entitled to equal health care. He left the pastorate and went into politics, working tirelessly for the rights of the poor and marginalized and becoming known as the father of universal health care in Canada.

Mary was the little girl with an idea who, in our text, speaks just as forcefully as any preacher or politician. Did she have an inkling of who her child would become and what he would do? Her protest song is a collage of poetry from the Psalms and prophets and sounds very much like Hannah’s song from generations earlier. Mary’s son Jesus, born in a cave many miles from home, would become the Savior of the world and the Great Leader who would inaugurate the reign of God. How do we respond this advent season?

Respond: My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.—Luke 1:46-47

Hannah’s Humpty Dumpty

The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble are armed with strength.—1 Samuel 2:4 ESV/NIV

Read: 1 Samuel 2:1-10

Reflect: “Pride goes before a fall”, goes the old saying. There is no better nursery rhyme to illustrate this than the brief account of Humpty Dumpty, the egotistical egg: “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.”

I remember being picked first once in a game of pick-up baseball on the school playground. With a puffed out chest I stood up to the plate and smacked a great hit . . . only for the ball to be caught by the center fielder who had been picked last! The bat of the “mighty” was silenced by the glove of the “feeble”.

Hannah is a lowly one who utters a poetic prayer when she dedicates her young son to the service of Yahweh. Upon first hearing them, her words may seem rather provocative and drastic, considering that she is merely an ordinary young mother thankful for an answer to prayer. However, there is a bigger picture hidden in her words that goes back to her ancestor Abraham, echoes the words of Hebrew poets and prophets, and foreshadows the coming of the Messiah. Hannah’s words encapsulate the entire “Great Reversal” theme of Scripture: those who are of high status will be brought down and the lowly will be raised up.

The story of Jesus’ coming, which we recount every year at this time, is not one of power and grandeur. Those of us who know the story well should not become too parochial and proud lest we have a great fall and find ourselves broken on the ground. Let us enter this season with humility and receptivity instead.

Respond: Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind; yea, all I need in thee to find, O Lamb of God, I come.—Charlotte Elliott

 

Gideon’s Inferiority Complex

But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.—Judges 6:15

Read: Judges 6:12-18

Reflect: Has God ever called you to a task for which you felt unfit and unworthy? I have often felt like Gideon did in our text today. I grew up on a small mixed farm and was part of a small rural congregation of a small Mennonite denomination that used to be known as the Kleine Gemeinde, which means “small church”. A popular saying within this congregation, when translated from the Low German language, reads, “With me it means nothing”. I think this idea may have crept into my own personality.

It is not uncommon for people to struggle with a low sense of self-worth. It seems especially so for many people in the Bible who were called to special tasks: when God called Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt he complained that he was not worthy of this important work because he could not speak very well (Exodus 4:10) and Jeremiah said he was too young to be a prophet (Jeremiah 1:6). Gideon, in our story today, claims that he is from the weakest clan and the least of his family.

Yet God assures all these people of divine presence and strength for the task. God calls Gideon a “mighty warrior” (v.12); commands him to “go in the strength you have” (v.14); and, most importantly, God promises, “I will be with you” (v.16).

What is overwhelming you today? God speaks to us who doubt our worth and capability: “You are loved. You are valuable. I will be with you. I will give you the strength you need. We can do this together!”

Respond: With your strength and presence I can confidently face whatever is before me today.