Imagine Moses at the Red Sea with a large group of his fellow kinsman huddled together after a long and hard run. Now imagine the most powerful army in the world at the time (the Egyptians) racing toward them bent on slaughtering them all. If ever there was a moment to need a change of pants, it was this. And yet, Moses stood calmly before his people and said, “Do not be afraid” (Exodus 14:13).
If recent polls are any indication, we live in a world increasingly full of fear and anger. Yet, one of the phrases repeated quite often in the Bible is, “Do not be afraid.” Because of this, I think it’s safe to say that fear and its close cousin anger, though healthy emotions at times, are not where we are supposed to camp out.
Making the transition from fear to peace is something that the psalmists knew a little about.
Not too long ago, Walter Bruegemman came to HSU and he talked to us about the Psalms. At his first session, he had this to say,
…the Psalms offer a counter world that is quite unlike the presumed world, in which we live; we are drawn to the Psalms, because we really want to have that counter world. We want to have a world in which God prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies. We want to live in a world where you can lift up your eyes to the hills and get help. But on the other hand, we avoid the Psalms because the counter world of the book of Psalms is very raw, and very edgy, very disputatious, very emotionally conflicted, and we would just soon not go there. So, we manage not to use those Psalms. I worship in the Episcopal Church, and we sing a Psalm every Sunday. But you wouldn’t believe how many of them we avoid, because Episcopalians are really very nice people, and you don’t want to do any poetry that’s not nice.
Curiously, Brueggemann makes the same mistake in his lecture by remaining mostly silent about these troublesome poems. For example, he intimates that if we just live by the Psalter that our life will be good. But what about Psalm 109, where the psalmist calls for vengeance by praying, “May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow. May his children wander about and beg; may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit.”
Does this lead to good?
And what about Psalm 137 which ends, “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”
Are we really supposed incorporate this beatitude?
I know Brueggemann has an answer, and probably a good one. But it wasn’t clear in the lecture.
It’s these troublesome poems, however, that I want to focus on, because to me they offer powerful insights about how we can find healing and peace in a world that incites anxiety and anger. For the psalmists were human, just like you and me. And though the Ancient Near East was a different world, the people who lived back then experienced the same kinds of things we do.
Because technology aside, to be human means to experience injustice, betrayal, hunger, fear, abandonment, despair, rage at institutions and their leaders and even disappointment with God, just to name a few. And when you read through the psalms, you will find all of these subjects and more as a part of the poetry and prayers of the writers.
As they tackled these subject, they did so in a way that didn’t sugar-coat their relationships, even with God. Instead, one finds a raw honesty that reflects both upon the providence of God when our faith seems to be one blessing after another, but also the incongruities and the seeming failures of religion.
For example, sometimes the “cup floweth over” (Psalm 23), but sometimes the righteous died of starvation and help from the hills never came and good people were slaughtered, causing the writer to proclaim, “judgment comes forth perverted” (read Habakkuk).
To me, this is what make the poems and prayers of the Psalms so attractive and powerful, for these writers dared to put into words what people were feeling during times like these as well. When I walk into a home of a family that just lost a 6-month-old, they don’t want to hear Psalm 145, “The Lord is faithful in ALL his words, in ALL his great deeds…,” because in that moment, God does not feel faithful at ALL.
Instead, the people in the room are shaking their fists at God and asking, “ My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” (Psalm 22).
To me, this is the great power of the Psalms–they give us permission to scream at God and say, “You let me down! What has ALL your talk of faithfulness and abundance gotten me now!”
But there’s more. Because venting can only take you so far. You have to keep going, which is another thing the psalmists teach us to do. For they knew that though the path of healing began with honesty and authenticity with our emotions in our prayers, we can’t stop there. We have to keep putting one foot in front of the other until we find hope and grace and trust again.
So after the emotions calm a little and the wound isn’t so raw, we have to find our way back to God. We have to finish the psalm, or write another one, that goes from, “I wish you all would drop dead,” to “Search ME, O God, and know MY heart; test ME and know MY thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in ME, and lead me in the way everlasting,” (Psalm 139, emphasis mine).
A couple of things I recommend that you do at some point in your life. First, read through the Psalms. ALL of them. Read one a day. And read it critically. Don’t just meditate on the nice parts. Study the not nice parts and think about how there were moments in your life when you doubted God, or were angry at your neighbor, or felt like damning your enemies to hell. On one level, the psalms offer us some catharsis. We’re not the only ones contemplating horrible things about the people we don’t like. People in the Bible did too.
HOWEVER, don’t stop there. You can’t. That’s what extremists do. You have to keep going. For this, I suggest writing your own psalm or prayer. Take a piece of paper. Write about what’s making you angry. Even if it is God. But then keep writing. Reflect on your own personal failures. The ways you have made people angry. Then write about the things you did to make people happy and about the moments when you were quite happy. Write about the grace you hope to experience. To find inspiration, study the psalms that talk about these things as well.
And in so doing, let these ancient poets teach you about how to find your way back to peace. As Psalm 43 expresses,
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God. (Psalm 43:5)