Rev. DeeAnne Lowman, Associate Pastor
“The Psalms: YouTube of the Scriptures”
May 3, 2009
I admit my son has already been introduced to YouTube. He is a big fan of The Wiggles, and there are tons of videos available to us without price that he loves. One of his favorites is Can You Point Your Fingers and Do the Twist. He knows when Mama opens up the laptop, there is a chance he might get to see a couple videos before she begins her sermon prep. What you may already know about YouTube, though, is that one can enter something like The Wiggles into the search engine, but what comes up as choices can be far from what one would expect. Some videos have been, shall we say – altered and other music added that is not particularly reflective of The Wiggles and their objectives for learning and teaching.
I am always amazed at what I can find online. The joke in my house is that if it’s on the internet, it must be true and factual, right? We all know the misinformation that can abound, but there is also good stuff on YouTube that is helpful and even correct. For example, my extended family wanted to know all they could that would help them to get to know Max better. Max is baby signing like crazy right now. I found a video with a mom and baby teaching baby sign, so I sent the link to them to help them learn his “language.” Some of you have seen the infamous “Susan Boyle Britain’s Got Talent video” where a doughty, single, unemployed 47 year-old woman surprised the judges with her beautiful voice. YouTube has struck a cord with the Internet community - humor, music, jokes, emotion, playfulness – it’s all there. Even the stuff that the Apostle Paul said to stay away from, but that is the topic for another time.
All of YouTube is not pleasant or funny but it does provide us a window or perhaps a platform from which to view the world, critique it, and even change it. The images can be something that confirms our hope in humanity and the goodness of life, disrupts our sensibilities about the world and how it works, or offers us a promise of change that will make the world a better place.
Walter Brueggemann speaks about the psalms in a similar fashion. There are, as he identifies them, three types of psalms: orienting, disorienting, and newly orienting. Psalms of orientation are psalms that “articulate the joy, delight, goodness, coherence, and reliability of God, God’s creation, and God’s governing law.”[i] These psalms are the “Good Vibrations” psalms – songs of creation like Psalm 33:
You set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.[ii]
There are songs of Torah – songs that affirm what we know about God and God’s desires for the world. Psalms like the one that was just read for us. “But their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.”[iii] Another orienting psalm is Psalm 37 – a wisdom psalm that tells us how it is with God. “Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land and enjoy security.”[iv] These are the psalms that affirm what we know and what we believe about ourselves, God, and the world. These are psalms that reassure us that God is in our corner always.
Psalm 23 is an orienting psalm. In it is expressed the trust that the psalmist had for God, even through and unto death. The language of shepherd for those first hearers of this song would have conjured images for them of being safe and secure in the arms of one who watches over them at all times. This psalm depicts God in a colloquial way that would have meant something tangible and real for them.
Brueggemann’s second category – the psalm of disorientation – pertain to psalms that reveal the disjointed and confusing events of life that knock us out of our equilibrium, leaving us feeling dizzy and confused. These are often called psalms of complaint or lament and they are both personal and communal in their nature. Psalms like Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul…”[v] is a psalm that reveals deep personal pain and alienation from God. Psalm 74 begins, “O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?”[vi] This particular psalm has as its subtitle “Plea for Help in Time of National Humiliation,” suggesting that an entire nation is feeling lost and abandoned by their God. It is assumed that it is Yahweh, not the people, who are not being faithful or as Brueggemann puts it, “Yahweh has not adequately guaranteed a stable life.”[vii]
These psalms are juxtaposed with the songs of creation and Torah (the orienting psalms) that assure us that, if we are truly good and faithful in the eyes of God, no ill will come to us and no enemy will thwart us. This presents the great theological question of the ages, doesn’t it? We know people – and we may indeed be people – who have led good and faithful lives and yet suffering happens. This question of theodicy cannot begin to be answered, but it is clearly identified by this kind of psalm. There is a deep need for answers, for comfort, for some explanation of the pain of life, the disappointments in the world which are expressed in these psalms. Somehow it might be a bit of a comfort to know that people have been expressing for centuries what we, ourselves, may be afraid to express: why do bad things happen to good people. I'll make no attempt to provide a stock answer for the question; only to acknowledge that the query continues to exist.
So far, we have moved from the orienting psalms, where we sense God is good and life is well-lived and we feel in place, to psalms of complaint and lament, where we find ourselves in a world that is not as we wish it were, or dreamed it could be; we fear God is absent from us or has left us behind. Brueggemann’s final description of the psalms is the psalm of new orientation – a new way of understanding our place in the world and God’s grace active in that world. These are psalms of thanksgiving, again both personal and communal like Psalm 138 and 124.
I give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple
and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love…[viii]
If it had not been the Lord who was on our side,
when our enemies attached,
then they would have swallowed us up alive…[ix]
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come into his presence with singing.
Psalms of promise for the future are truly reorienting psalms. There are psalms like Psalm 29, a song about a leader who will bring about the reign of God.
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
The Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace![x]
Psalms of new orientation provide us with a vision of what is possible, what is truly God’s desire for the world and its people. These are psalms that reflect a sense that God's hand is active in the places where God's people dwell. These are psalms of declaration – proclaiming something new or renewed or fulfilled in the divine designs of life.
So where does this leave us? We know that there are times when we have a sense of divine intimacy, a closeness that is understood by our actions of faithful, and the faithfulness of God toward us. We know that there are times when we feel lost and abandoned, not knowing where God is or why we are hurting. And there are times when we see a new reality, a new way of being with God in the world that transcends our understanding but is grounded in trust. The psalms provide for us a place of entry, no matter where we find ourselves. They give us an opportunity to be thankful, to be connected, to be hopeful, to be angry. Yes, angry. In a recent conversation with a seminarian, she expressed a sense of relief after learning during her theological education that it is okay to rage against God when you need to. It's okay to say to God: “look this really does stink, what has happened. I don't like that I feel alone and dumped on. God, where are you in this?”
When our groans are too deep for words, or when we don't or can't find the words, the psalms can offer words to us. The psalms can be our prayer, our expressions of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. The great evangelist Billy Graham has shared that, early on in his ministry, he would read and pray five psalms a day. That way he could get through all the psalms in a month. His experience with them brought him to a better understanding of what he needed, what his neighbor needed, and what the world could hope for. There were, I suppose, days when Rev. Graham didn't feel a sense of disorientation, but the psalm he found himself reading was that expressed deep grief and forsakenness. Or perhaps he was charged to pray a psalm of celebration and affirm (an orienting psalm) and his disposition for the day was anything but happy. I am sure there were days when Graham had a sense that the world was in a place of chaos, yet one of his five might have been a new orientation psalm that reflected the never-failing grace and love of God. But there were also days when he needed to recall that all was not right with the world, even though he himself was not specifically feeling any injustice in his own life. There were times when, even though we possess a sense of equilibrium, there are grave concerns we should hear, remember, and perhaps preach about for the sake of others.
The Psalms were the theological oral tradition of their time. While we still don't have an answer to the big question represented in the Psalms – why does bad stuff happen? - we do have a sense of connection to God no matter what the situation. We can struggle with our own image of God through these texts. We can know that, while we don't have answers, neither did those who have come before us, but nonetheless, we and God remain faithful.
People shared the psalms not just through word but through song. Not all psalms are designed to be read or prayed, but all the psalms were meant to be sung. These were the hymns of the day that shared the YouTube truth that life is fun, divine, difficult, even painful, but ultimately hopeful. I want us to have the chance to sing a psalm. I've chosen a celebration psalm – an reorienting psalm that reminds us of a new reality in God that is possible, even promised. Let's try singing Psalm 100 – Stanley and Mim are going to help us along.
The Psalms are a songbook for life for us. They name the truths that we know and live through. They provide us a sense that things are good and right and just, but there are times and places and events that rock us to our core – disorienting us from the life we know and feel comfortable in. Then there are the psalms that help us remember and hope for what is to come.
Brueggemann, Walter, Spirituality of the
[ii] Psalm 33:5-6 (NRSV)
[iii] Psalm 1:2 (NRSV)
[iv] Psalm 37:3 (NRSV)
[v] Psalm 13:1-2a (NRSV)
[vi] Psalm 74:1 (NRSV)
[vii] Brueggemann, p. 43.
[viii] Psalm 138:1-2a (NRSV)
[ix] Psalm 124:2-3a (NRSV)
[x] Psalm 29:10-11