St. John’s University, Collegivelle, MN, 56231 2006
Sunday, May 31st
I am frightened by the insecurities about me. I am sorely tempted to run for my life, to take refuge in foolish escapades that dim the vision and drug the soul.
There is no escape from the realities of this fractured world… But there is a place of refuge. God is in our midst. He is aware of the fears and apprehensions of His beloved children. He may not always rid us of our fears. He does promise to face them with us, to make them stepping-stones to faith, to use them to draw us closer to Himself.
I need not worry overmuch about the distortions of this world. I do need to be aware that God is here and allow Him through me to reveal Himself to His world.
The above interpretation of Psalm 11 was written by pastor Leslie Brandt as a way to express what the psalmist might be saying if he were living in these modern times. Today we begin what I think will be a most helpful journey into the Psalms, as various members of our congregational family will give us their perspective on individual psalms and their application to our lives.
How can we possibly feel that this book of ancient poetry produced by many different poets over a span of more than half a millennium, probably beginning during or even before the tenth century BCE, can have anything pertinent to say to our current common experience?
First of all, reading a psalm requires from us a change of pace, a downshifting from our hectic worlds (…and they remain hectic even in the Pandemic, don’t they?), forcing us to slow down and pay attention. That is what poetry naturally does for us, and that is why it is so important for our spiritual lives. L.D. Johnson, the long-time chaplain at Furman University, gives us a helpful understanding of the value of Wisdom literature, a biblical genre that includes the Psalms (along with Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon). He says, “Imagine that you are driving on a dark rainy night along an unfamiliar, winding, narrow road. Your headlights pick up a luminous sign ahead: “Dangerous curve, maximum safe speed – 25 mph.” Since you do not know the road, you will likely heed the warning, assuming that previous drivers’ experience prompted erection of the sign. To be sure, you might choose to ignore it, believing that your skill or ‘good luck’ makes you exempt from the limitations imposed upon your predecessors. In that case, you may very well add to the statistics of those who pay no attention to the conclusions drawn from the accumulated evidence of the past.”
Secondly, the Psalms run the full gamut of human emotion, from rage to hope, lament to celebration. In Walter Brueggemann’s book Praying the Psalms, he tells us that “The Psalms, with a few exceptions, are not the voice of God addressing us. They are rather the voice of our own common humanity — gathered over a long period of time, but a voice that continues to have amazing authenticity and contemporaneity.” The Psalms, he writes, “offer speech when life has gone behind our frail efforts to control… eloquent, passionate songs and prayers of people who are at the desperate edge of their lives.”
Thirdly, poetry, which most of us are unaccustomed to, speaks in a manner far different than prose, which is our world’s typical method of communicating. Brueggemann, again, but this time in a book on preaching, Finally Comes the Poet, exhorts preachers to be “poets that speak against a prose world.” By that he means that the gospel is often preached in an expected, comfortable form that allows listeners to trivialize it and take it for granted, reducing “mystery to problem… assurance into certitude… quality into quantity… and so takes the categories of biblical faith and represents them in manageable shapes.” Not so with poetry, “language that moves, that jumps at the right moment, that breaks open old worlds with surprise, abrasion and pace.”
As a preacher I have been helped so much by Brueggemann, but I also find that his advice is as helpful out of the pulpit as it is in. Therefore, in the days ahead, I look forward to slowing my pace and listening to the poetic folks in our own congregation helping us to pay attention to the gentle nudgings of God.
As we embark, I thought a Jewish midrash shared by Rabbi Jonathan Magonet might be a refreshing introduction. A midrash is an effort to interpret the meaning of scripture, sometimes through parable.:
When King David had completed the Book of Psalms he felt very proud and said: ‘Lord of the universe, have You a creature that proclaims more praises of You than I?!’ So God sent him a frog which said: ‘David don’t be so proud of yourself. I chant the praises of my Creator more than you do. Moreover, I perform a great virtue in that when my time comes to die, I go down to the sea and allow myself to be swallowed up by one of its creatures. So even my death is an act of kindness. (Yalkut Hhimeoni 2.889)
Rabbi Magonet’s midrash points me in the direction of a contemporary one. Billy Collins is a former U.S. Poet Laureate who happens to be one of my favorite poets, because his poetry is so insightful and so easy to listen to, much like Robert Frost, I think. In his collection of poems, The Trouble With Poetry, we find “Flock,” which begins with an epigraph, “It has been calculated that each copy of the Gutenberg Bible required the skins of 300 sheep.” With that bit of knowledge, hear “Flock.”
I can see them
squeezed into the holding pen behind the stone building where the printing press is housed.
All of them squirming around to find a little room and looking so much alike it would be nearly impossible to count them.
And there is no telling which one will carry the news that the Lord is a Shepherd, one of the few things they already know.
There is an old story which is sometimes used in confirmation classes where children are asked to memorize the 23rd Psalm. It emphasizes the fourth word of the very first line of this psalm . . . “The Lord is my shepherd.” As the story goes, it was 1850, and in a log cabin on the plains there was a boy dying of diphtheria. The family’s preacher was a Methodist circuit rider who would ride hundreds of miles to preach to several different churches, making the rounds every two months or so. The pastor came into the cabin where the boy, little Timmy, was sick. Ushered behind the curtain which separated Timmy from the rest of the family, the pastor asked, “Timmy, do you know how to say the 23rd Psalm?” Timmy replied, “Oh yes, I learned it when I was in the second grade, in Sunday School. It goes like this, ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’” and then Timmy rattled off the rest in a hurry. “No, Timmy, that’s not the way to say it.” “Okay, Pastor. I’ll say it more slowly.” “No, Timmy. I want to teach you how to really say this psalm. As you begin the first sentence you count on your fingers, beginning with the thumb, ‘The . . . Lord . . . is . . . my’ and when you get to the ‘my’ you grab that finger. That will remind you that Jesus is always your personal shepherd. Okay?” Timmy practiced with the pastor until he got it right. The pastor then left. Two months later the pastor returned to the log cabin, to see a little mound of dirt near the cabin with a cross on it. He knew Timmy had died. The pastor then went into the cabin and talked to the family about Timmy. Finally, the mother couldn’t help herself and she said, “Pastor, something strange happened the night Timmy died. We kissed him goodnight. In the morning, first thing, we went through the curtain to see him, but he was gone. He had died during the night. But his hands were in a strange position. His right hand was holding on to the third finger of his left hand. Do you have any idea of what that means?”
Holding on to the psalms is a reminder of God’s holding on to us. Happy traveling.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
Are there poems, psalms that you know by heart? Let their recitation guide you in your prayers today.
Are there poets whose work you particularly enjoy? Why? Thank God for their vision.
In the Psalms we see that David and the other psalmists struggled just as we do, yet found comfort and sustenance in prayer. Offer your worries and burdens, which are not new or surprising, to the God who hears and stands with you.
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Wendell Berry’s “How to Be a Poet (to remind myself)”
Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet. You must depend upon affection, reading, knowledge, skill—more of each than you have—inspiration, work, growing older, patience, for patience joins time to eternity. Any readers who like your poems, doubt their judgment.
Breathe with unconditional breath the unconditioned air. Shun electric wire. Communicate slowly. Live a three-dimensioned life; stay away from screens. Stay away from anything that obscures the place it is in. There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.
Accept what comes from silence. Make the best you can of it. Of the little words that come out of the silence, like prayers prayed back to the one who prays, make a poem that does not disturb the silence from which it came.