Notes from a Journey Through the Psalms

This past winter, the adult Sunday school class completed an eight-week study of Journey Through the Psalms, by Denise Dombkowski Hopkins, a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary. The course provided us with a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the Psalms, and one of our conclusions was that we wanted to find a way to share our experience with the rest of the church.

One way of categorizing Psalms is via a framework that Walter Brueggemann calls the three seasons of faith: orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. Psalms of orientation include hymns to God the Creator and wisdom psalms; psalms of disorientation include various types of laments; thanksgiving psalms are good examples of psalms of reorientation. Our group would like to see the inclusion of a visual representation (banner, quilt, window ...) of these three seasons in the sanctuary. For example, our textbook presented us with the image on the right, a drawing by Rev. Chris Suerdieck entitled, "Three Figures in Prayer."

Another thing we came to realize is that there is a strong but unfortunate impulse in western Christianity to gloss over disorientation, even though we know in our hearts, and from our own experiences, that at any given time there are going to be members of our community in a lot of pain. One of the most important things we learned from the course was how our experience with the Psalms has generally been "cleaned up" by the writers of hymns and liturgy. We were surprised to discover Psalms, or parts of Psalms, that we had never read, and we began to see and understand the importance of honoring and including some of the pain and anger of the psalmists in our own reflection and worship. Though perhaps not appropriate for a permanent installation, we came to feel that having a banner acknowledging some of that pain, such as the one by Susan Stevens shown on the next page, could have a place in our worship. We also developed an appreciation for the idea of "life in the meanwhile," which recognizes that healing is a process that can sometimes take years. Learning to expect, honor, and make space for life in the meanwhile is essential in our fast paced goal driven lives.

Here's a partial list of lament Psalms:

They're well worth a fresh reading, as they provide a more complete picture of human experience.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we learned to view the Psalms as an avenue for dialog with God. Sometimes, there is a prim and proper attitude to Christian prayer when a much healthier approach could be to take a page from Jewish tradition. Think of the Tevye character in "Fiddler on the Roof." He maintains an open and direct line of dialog with God that is honest and healthy. He shows us it's OK to roll one's eyes and ask, "God? What were you thinking?" In additional to this ongoing prayerful dialog, we were challenged on several occasions to write our own psalms. We discovered that the act of writing/creating helped us to better understand our own inner feelings, to empathize with and support each other, and to connect our daily lives to scripture. In writing our own lament psalms, many of us struggled to write the "but," which is typically the turning point away from the complaint and toward praise. We identified with Psalm 88!

We concluded the class with a strong feeling that lament should be part of worship; that worship needs to provide space for the expression of anger, doubt, pain, and fear. As the last lines of Psalm 107 exhort us: "If you are wise, study these things and realize the great love of Our God." (We fell in love with Psalm 107, by the way!)