Today we’re starting a new series for the summer. As you can see I had a little fun with Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign. Definitely not because I want to minimize their campaign in anyway - you guys know that my own family has faced significant challenges with mental health - but instead because I am inspired by their campaign, and in fact challenged by their campaign, for if there is any place that we should be unafraid to open up our heats and lives and share our ups and downs before God and one another, it is the church. Yet so often that is not the case. We “I’m fine” everyone we see on Sunday, which would be bad enough, except that we can also then carry that same “I’m fine” mask into our corporate worship, into our prayer times, and into our relationship with God.
Yet maybe this is changing? At least in some corners of the church. Just this week the Christian web-comic creator, Adam 4D, shared a bit of his own struggles in a very courageous strip.
If we stop there (the cartoonist does not and we’ll get to his final slides later), we may be surprised at how shockingly honest he is with his thoughts about God. They may make us uncomfortable. What do you do when a friend or spouse or child makes statements such as these? What do you do when your own soul makes statements such as these. Do you change the subject? Suppress the questioning? (Don’t say that!) Distract with entertainment? (hey, let’s go have some fun!) Deny their feelings (you don’t really feelthat way) Joke it away?
When I read Adam’s strip, however, it hit me, probably because I’ve been reading the Psalms in preparing for this sermon series, how often the Psalmist asked similar questions.
See that’s the irony. We find it so difficult to share our thoughts from the pits of life with one another, yet we have an entire book of the Bible - the longest book of the Bible - filled with these prayers from the pit. This summer we’re going to be working through some of these psalms, hopefully praying and memorizing some of these psalms, for they are our prayer book, given to us by God. One commentator writes: “The Psalms show us how to pray out in words (spoken or written) our deepest hurts and longings, our struggles that leave us anxious or angry, our confessions of guilt, and our joyful thanks and praise so that we share all of our life experiences with our God who listens and responds. We lay out whatever it is that we feel and then we put our confidence in God.”
Today I’m not going to look at any one particular psalm, but want to introduce the book as a whole. One of the most helpful approaches I came across was in Walter Brueggeman’s book, “Praying the Psalms”. Brueggeman is an Old Testament scholar, but I surely wouldn’t endorse all that he says and writes. But he provides a really helpful framework for understanding the psalms. For the psalms are not only prayers, but they also tell a story. Once you see this story, you see it in the psalms, you then see it in our own lives, and ultimately it is His story - God’s unfolding plan of salvation in history. The story contains three chapters. The first chapter describes a state of secure orientation: Peace. The second, a painful disorientation: Pain. The third, a surprising reorientation: Praise.
This is the story of the Psalms
This is reflected through the entire work of the Psalms. In Psalm 1, the intro of the book the moral order of the universe is preserved. Everything is as it should be. Righteousness is blessed, wickedness is punished. Even in Psalm 2, there is a tension introduced - the nations are raging against the Lord and his anointed - yet the Lord, is in heaven, laughing, scoffing at their plans which will amount to nothing. Yet this state of orientation quickly turns; Psalm 3 begins, “O LORD, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; many are saying of my soul, there is no salvation for him in God.” While there are some notes of grace within the Psalms, for the most part this disorientation continues until reaching its lowest point in Psalm 88. Psalm 88 is the only Psalm that doesn’t at least end with a note of hope. Its bleak. It rails against God. Here’s how it ends: “You have taken away my companions and loved ones. Darkness is my closest friend” This disorientation continues as the dominant theme, until suddenly, in the final five psalms, the book comes to a surprising reorinetation, a symphany of praise. Here’s how the work ends, Psalm 150. So in the entire work, you have this progression from order, to disorder, to reordering; from peace to pain to praise.
Often this movement is found within one Psalm. For example, take a look at Psalm 73. The Psalmist will begin by stating a thesis of orientation, in this case verse 1: “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” But then look at how quickly things become disoriented, “But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” The heart of the Psalm is the Psalmist expressing his painful disorientation which hits bottom in verses 13-14: “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.” “I’ve served God for nothing!” Yet that is not the end of the Psalm, for God meets him and brings him to a place of reorientation. The Psalm ends with a new understanding of God and His relationship to man, a redefining of what “good” means. Verse 28: “For me, it is good to be near God”, better, My good is the nearness of my God. So order, disorder, reorder is the pattern of the Psalms, and most of them spend a lot of time in the disorder stage. That makes sense because, well as Bruggeman writes, “While we all yearn for [that stage], it is not very interesting, it does not produce great prayer or powerful song.”
The Story of Our Lives
That brings us to the story of our lives. Peace, Pain, Praise. The stage of order, of peace is a tricky one. It’s the most comfortable stage. “It is the mood of much of the middle class church,” but its also the stage in which it is the hardest to pray. Many of us are are so comfortable that we have not learned to pray. We are not desperate enough, period, and that spills over into our spiritual lives, for we are not truly desperate enough to seek God. Now, a person in this state may still love and worship God, they may possess that child-like faith that with an open hand and heart simply accepts the things of the Father. They may however find it difficult to connect with the book of Psalms, for it may seem too dark and brooding for them. If that’s you, if you’re in that state: praise God, for it is a time of grace and comfort. Yet what can you do in that state?
- Memorize the Psalms: this is a great time to begin to prepare yourself for times of disorder to come. Fight the shallow faith.
- Sing them with others: Even if you’re not going through a time of disorientation, there are others around you who are and who may be asking the tough questions of the psalms. If you’re acquainted with the psalms, their pain will not take you by surprise and in fact, you may be a safe person for them to come to.
So yes, the Psalms have great value to us even when the suns shining down on us and the world is as it should be.
But yes, the Psalms are even more precious to the one going through times of disorientation in their faith: the Pain stage. The psalms speak to nearly every crisis of life and faith. John Calvin called the Psalms “an anatomy of all parts of the soul” We’re crying little children before God, and the Psalms teach us to “use our words” - the give us an emotional.spiritual vocabulary to approach the Father with. The Psalms teach us to question God well. To rage at God well. To cry out to God, well. To praise him well.
Will praying the psalms cure your depression or your anxiety? Well, I’m not a doctor, and don’t want to oversell. But learning the psalms may do a few things for you. First, you’ll find you’re not alone. Great people of faith prayed these prayers of disorientation. Second, you’ll learn to pray renewing your mind around God’s word. Knowing that you’re learning a language of prayer that God has approved. The words can lead your mind and spirit. Third, the psalms will direct you to God, who does have the power to heal you, and to sustain you. See the power is not in the prayer, but in God himself - as the psalms say He is the lifter of our head. Does it happen all at once? No, which is why the psalmists cry, How Long o Lord? but we keep praying until the Lord leads us to that third stage of surprising reorientation: Praise.
Sometimes in the Psalms that resolution comes immediately - for you heard my cry and lifted me out of the pit. Sometimes it is a statement of faith - my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. Sometimes its is a new way of thinking about God or about our troubles. Often in the Psalms, resolution comes when we look past our lives and toward the future state, when God will judge the righteous and the wicked and we will dwell with him forever. Which leads us to the final story: God’s story. See you can’t read the psalms, you can’t pray the psalms without recognizing that they point us to a greater story, A story that goes beyond ourselves, beyond the psalmists, but that our stories point to and long for.
God’s story is also a broad story of order, disorder, reordering. It’s the story of the Bible, the story of history that we all find ourselves in. See, we were created perfectly oriented toward God and toward man. God created Adam and Eve and set them in a perfectly ordered garden, and everything was good. Yet, our first ancestors, and every human being since save one, sinfully rebelled against God and were plunged into disorder, chaos, darkness, destruction and despair. Yet God promised a Messiah, a deliverer, His Anointed One, the King, that would come and make all things new. After thousands of years of promise, God sent his only Son into the world, to be the Messiah, the Christ. He offered us life, and we, demonstrating that our hearts loved darkness rather than light, we crucified the Lord of Glory. Yet God raised him from the dead and set his name in the heavens above every name, that he might be saviour of all who call on him, shining in their hearts to bring light out of darkness and order out of chaos. He offers forgiveness of sins to all who repent, and promises that someday he will come again to make all things new. That’s God’s story - Order, disorder, new order. Its the reality that we testify to in our baptism: life, death, new life, and the reality that we testify every day of our lives as Christians - as the apostle Paul says:
2 Corinthians 4:8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.
2Cor. 4:13 Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, 14 knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.
The apostle Paul is here quoting the book of psalms. Psalm 116: Psa. 116:8 For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I will walk before the LORD in the land of the living. I believed, even when I spoke: “I am greatly afflicted”. I don’t think it is an accident that he claimed the same spirit of faith of the Psalmist as he faced trials of many kinds,speaking out of his own affliction, for even though, as Paul says, we die daily, we also experience the life of Christ now and in the resurrection. It is this hope that sustains the Psalmist. It is this hope that sustains us.