Psalms

A Song for Each Kind of Day

Psalms, Vibe Images / Shutterstock.com
Psalms, Vibe Images / Shutterstock.com

Two years ago during my step-daughter’s final months with terminal cancer, I spent three days in quiet reflecton at Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN. Worshiping with the Benedictines was part of the structure of my day, the chants and readings opening space for fresh air to enter my angry soul … except for … the Psalms. Outrageously violent, vindictive, intolerant, self-righteous—horrible expressions of emotions I had gone there to revoke.

 

Faith is Certain and Endless

Sunrise over New York City. Image via Wiki Commons (http://bit.ly/HRlswn).
Sunrise over New York City. Image via Wiki Commons (http://bit.ly/HRlswn).

I know that the sun will rise tomorrow.

With all of the scientific facts and astronomical data we are blessed with today, I can expect to wake up tomorrow and see rays of light shining through my window.

There is also no debating time. Our clocks, both digital and internal, continue to tick onward no matter the circumstances. These are inexorable certainties in life. However, these proven facts of our existence are limited. They are not the whole story.

There are things in life we neither can physically see nor explain, and yet we choose to believe anyway.

When our little siblings place their fallen teeth underneath their pillows, hoping to see a winged fairy deliver gifts in return, they are relying entirely on an unproven belief. When students choose universities to attend, they do not know what the outcomes of their decisions will be, nor can they predetermine their futures after school. But they continue to grow and experiment with life anyway.

Even the wisest of theologians and clergy have very few answers to the questions pertaining to God’s existence that enter our minds on a daily basis. All of these situations represent something many of us hold onto so dearly: Faith.

One Psalm, Two Causes, Two Meanings

Psalms, Vibe Images, Shutterstock.com
Psalms, Vibe Images, Shutterstock.com

For decades, Psalm 139 has been a byword of the anti-abortion movement, printed on posters in crisis pregnancy centers. More recently, it's been tied to high-resolution ultrasounds, the movement's most potent technological persuader.

At the same time, the famous Psalm has also "come out" as a source of strength for gay and lesbian Christians.

Together, the two uses illustrate how great verses -- particularly the Psalms -- attract diverse constituencies.

Tools for Prayer

Yesterday afternoon I found out that ABC news plans to dedicate it programming today to "Hunger at Home: Crisis in America." It precipitated my writing of this post which I had planned to add as a later addition to a series on tools for prayer.

One important item in our prayer toolkit is knowledge of our hurting world. Not knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but knowledge that equips us to respond. Becoming aware of the needs in our world can lead us into a deeper understanding of the ache in God's heart for our hurting friends and neighbors. It can also connect us to our own self-centered indifference that often makes us complacent when God wants us to be involved. And it can stimulate us to respond to situations that we once felt indifferent to.

The Dangers of De-Fanging God

When I was a girl of 7 or 8 years, I laid awake most nights praying to have a friend. There in the darkness, I'd repeat the lament of a lonely child—a small, particular, not especially poetic petition, yet a somewhat common prayer for we, the playground loners. Invariably, my prayers ended with a song learned at Vacation Bible School that I'd sing until the respite of sleep finally came: "When I need a friend to get me through the night, God is there....God is there, always there, with a helping hand to lift my load of care. He'll be faithful to the end, on his promise I'll depend, when I really need a friend, God is there."

This is my earliest memory of prayer. And, though I have since prayed in the face of greater personal and corporate evil and suffering, my prayers rarely possess the desperation and hope I bore to God those sleepless nights. Now when I can't sleep, I do a crossword puzzle, put on Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, or sit on my front porch singing hymns.

We are approaching Advent, the season in which we act out anticipating God incarnate. Though we know the outcome of that story, we are mindful not to jump too quickly ahead to the manger, bypassing the complexity of living in light and darkness. In the hurry to get to Bethlehem, don't ignore the long donkey ride or forget about wandering in the wilderness. Don't lose sight of the trepidation and wondering that comes with not knowing what comes next.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1999
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Shepherd of the City

The movie and television media create, support, and perpetuate negative images of people in some ethnic groups. For more than a half-century, media giants have encouraged a climate and culture of hate, in which irresponsible rhetoric dominates and insensitive stereotyping promotes prejudice.

My formative years were influenced greatly by both these negative images and an alternative vision at home. Those of us who grew up in the ‘50s found one of three things in almost every African-American home: a wall-hanging or framed setting of the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, or the 23rd Psalm.

Within this context, quite frankly, I did not at first look favorably upon a recently published children’s book, The Twenty-third Psalm, illustrated by Tim Ladwig. The power of stereotypical images makes one wary.

But because this psalm has been an important part of my life for many years (I memorized it just after the "Now I lay me down to sleep" prayer and the pledge of allegiance), I took another look at Ladwig’s illustrations. Slowly I began to see what the illustrator was doing. From the beginning line, "The Lord is my shepherd," to the end, "and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever," Ladwig is asking us to re-examine the psalm and to apply the phrases to our everyday practice of faith, hope, and unconditional love.

The illustrator serves as the eyes and ears of people who live in the inner city. He gives a perspective on this world for those who ride through in locked cars and flee at 5 p.m. He shows a brother and sister living in the midst of urban reality. They are blessed to have loved ones who turn to God for guidance as part of their daily life. Even a reader who does not have the faith of this family will be impressed by the strength and solace their faith in God gives them.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1998
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A Lesson in Rainbows

When Ntozake Shange published For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, I was delighted. I read the book six times, and I saw the play three times. This work meant so much to me then and continues to mean a great deal to me primarily because I am a "colored girl" who has considered suicide often and who struggles to find how the "rainbow is enuf."

Thanks be to God that he speaks to me in the ways that I can hear best. God used Shange to help me name the pain that I felt and also to show me that he was present to me, and more importantly that he had always been present to me, even before the time of my birth. Like the women in For Colored Girls, I knew of no one who would "sing a black girl's song" and make clear, affirmative statements about my worth as a human being upon the planet.

While this continues to be true, it was a much more destructive fact for me in the past than it is now. I had a great deal of difficulty living as a black female follower of Jesus in a world that deemed me alien first on the basis of my blackness, then my femaleness, and finally because of my faith. As a result my life has often been and is now at times plagued by depression and despair.

So why is a person who admits to being suicidal writing about hope? Because the fact that I am 37 years old and able to articulate why I am alive speaks to where I find hope.

I am not really sure about what it means to love God, but I do know what it means to be loved by God; and while God's love for me is no guarantee against struggles, despair, or suicidal thoughts, it gives me the strength to take the next step.

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