Reading the Psalms as a Man, Lenten Reflection #6
Along with other reading I am doing in the Bible, for example, just today I finished reading the book we call Isaiah, I am reading the Psalms and the Proverbs. I'm not sure I remember exactly where I picked up on the idea, but when I read the Psalms and the Proverbs I do so like this: five Psalms per day, 1 chapter of Proverbs per day. This enables me to read both books entirely in 30 days. This is a good practice for anyone, at any time, but it's an especially helpful practice during Lent given that we have 40 days to work with. So even if one gets behind a day or two, the books can still be completed in a relatively good amount of time.
Personally, I think the book of Psalms is likely the book that persuades me of the veracity of the Christian claim. Perhaps that sounds strange given that New Testament books speak directly to and announce rather loudly those claims; perhaps even speak primarily those claims. It's true. I don't deny that. At another level, however, there is the working mind and all of us, regardless of who we are, have a mind that functions in different ways. For example, as a man my mind is, according to some theories, supposed to connect with and be moved by a sort of raw masculinity, a blood and guts kind of appreciation for dirt and adventure. To an extent, I suppose I am. I love watching Rambo and Terminator movies for example. But if I told you I watched them for reasons other than the violence and blood you'd probably call me a liar.
But I do.
I watch Rambo, at least First Blood, because it is a redemption story and it moves me. Emotionally. I watch Terminator movies because they evoke in me a sense of hopelessness that only finds solace in someone outside the film. I do not watch any film for the sake of mere bloodsport or violence–which is why traditional horror films do nothing for me at all: there is simply no emotion. Jason Vorhees killed to kill and we never saw any emotion. Same with Michael Myers. At least Freddy Krueger had the scars to prove his emotion. Funny how the killers in these horror films always have to have their faces rearranged, isn't it?
I watch movies for the story they tell and because in movies I am permitted to experience the full sway of my emotions without repercussion from anyone. Truth? I still cry at the end of Return of the Jedi when Luke throws away his light saber and chooses certain death over unlimited power and during the last scene of Return of the King when the king bows before the hobbits of the Shire and at the end of The Shawshank Redemption when Andy and Red share a hug on a beach. Hope. And don't get me started on The Sound of Music. That film wipes me out with each note they sing.
There are many other movies that do the same thing to me. It's not sentimentalism and since I don't watch cheap romance films, I am scarcely moved by simple boy-gets-girl or girl-gets-boy stories. I am moved by love–raw, uncontrollable, undeniable, sometimes angry and proven love in movies. I get that from heroes who die for those they love. I get that from characters who make hard choices in the face of evil or have to take matters of justice into their own hands and wrestle with that decision frequently. I get that from justice being done and the world being set to rights. I get that when dragons are slain and color returns the gray void. It's like seeing Dorothy open her door for the first time in Oz and seeing color–which is a scene, perhaps more than any other in The Wizard of Oz, that moves me.
I connect with those people and the story they tell. I connect with the emotions they share–and some actors are far better at it than others which is why I gravitate towards their films rather frequently. I have even seen Tom Cruise emote in a way that moves me.
So, the Psalms. The Psalms are like little films to me. Each one tells a story and yet each one is part of a fabric woven together to form part of a greater quilt. And the Psalms are nothing if not raw expressions of emotion and love. As a man, I'm not supposed to be in tune with my emotions, but I promise you there are times when the Psalms have made me weep. Each Psalm is a script in a movie and there are heroes and goats; there are gods and men; there are women and men; there are props and animals; there is a soundtrack; there is a back story. Not all of them feature each element yet some have all of these elements.
I love the Psalms because the Psalms are raw emotion. There is virtually no emotion the Psalms avoid. There is no scenario the Psalms haven't explored. There is drama in the Psalms–in every one of them. And for some reason, I like it.
I like that these men who wrote the Psalms were not afraid to let that emotion pour out in a very public way to God. Whoever put the book of Psalms together was a pure genius because they understood that YHWH invented emotions. And the writers of the Psalms–whether they knew they were writing Scripture or not is beside the point–understood that God was not afraid of their anger, their fear, their sadness, their joy, their anxiety, their boredom, their bloodthirsty-ness, their hunger, their tears, their uncertainty, their loneliness, their exhaustion, their guilt, their sin, their shame, their love, their hate, their hurt, their shame, their exaltation, their indifference, and much more besides. And for this reason, I connect deeply with the Psalms. Jesus did too given that he quoted from them even as he hung on the cross. In these drama filled, emotion laden scripts Jesus found a voice for his own emotion: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22)
The Psalms are a roller coaster of emotional outpouring. We can relate to the Psalms because these are all the things we feel and experience everyday of our lives and the Psalms tell us that we can pour out all these things on God, that he hears, that he (eventually) answers, and that at the very heart of things: God cares about his covenant people; deeply. Deeply enough that there is scarcely a word we can utter that offends him. The message of the Psalms: Pour it out and if you don't have your own words, pilfer from these 150 poems.
And for this same reason, in my mind, the Psalms more than anything else persuade me of the truth claims of Scripture: because of their raw honesty and their childlike expression of this honesty. The Psalms are not out to 'prove' anything even if the Psalms happen to demonstrate many things. The Psalms' only objective, and of course I recognize that the Psalms are doing more than this, is to lay out this deep yearning and longing that finds no resolution here on earth or among people. They take us to the very heights of the world to the very depths of hell, they leave us with unanswered prayers, they leave us weeping on couches and suffering bouts of insomnia.
What I like about the Psalms is that for all their perfection and beauty they teach us that the world we live in is not perfect, is not always beautiful, that life is not always predictable, and that YHWH is not a cosmic vending machine who is at our beck and call. Sometimes he waits….off in the distance…maybe just to see if we have the nerve to cry out to him and trust him while we wait. He cares; yes, deeply. Yet ultimately even the Psalms tell us a story with a greater plot–a story in which we are characters who play a vital role. In his short book A Case for the Psalms, NT Wright wrote:
In the same way, the story the Psalms tell is the story Jesus came to complete. It is the story of the creator God taking his power and reigning, ruling on earth as in heaven, delighting the whole creation by sorting out its messes and muddles, its injuries and injustices, once and for all. It is also the story of malevolent enemies prowling around, of people whispering lies and setting traps, and of sleepless nights and bottles full of tears. (31)
I like the Psalms because they allow me to drink deeply of the emotions of others and to pour out my emotions. They are a place where my masculinity is not called into question when my emotions are on full sleeve display. I know of a congregation or two where the preacher was not allowed to be so emotional. I distinctly recall him being told to 'fake it' because it's not 'professional' to be emotive. It's not professional to weep openly or to express deep grief and sorrow and hurt. I think congregations like this bore God. Most preachers are accused of being liars; this one was accused of being honest. I think these are also congregations where preachers are constantly on edge because the congregation constantly wants him to subdue his emotions–imagine telling Jeremiah, the weeping prophet to stifle his emotions.
I also think these congregations are the ones who pour salt into the wounds of the preachers or twist the knife in his back a little harder and deeper. These are the congregations who have no clue how to come alongside one who is suffering and just sit and mourn or laugh or sing. These are congregations who are very unfamiliar with the man who 'took up our sorrows', the man acquainted with suffering and grief, the man who cried out to God in desperation, and wept openly at a funeral.
I suspect that congregations like this should spend more time reading the Psalms. Or the Bible in general. They should become acquainted with the people who poured out such emotion before God. They should become acquainted with Jesus who affirmed them.