During this time when we daily hear news of new infections, of conflicts about how best to keep others safe, and of deaths, I’ve been just bowled over by the relevance of the Psalms. Our Daily office leaders are praying Morning and Evening Prayer as they normally would, only at home, and the clergy are offering it online, and those offices are grounded in just praying through the Psalter, over and over. Nearly every Monday when I am livestreaming Morning Prayer, there is at least one verse in the Psalms that I appreciate in a way I never have before.
A large number of the Psalms, like Psalm 66 today, refer to experiences of plague, isolation, illness, defeat, loneliness, and despair. They model a language for bringing things like that to God and considering them in the light of his loving power. And you know, for all my time as a priest, I’ve had to sort of re-frame these Psalms for people, because apart from exceptions like a tragic event or a national crisis like Sept 11th, most of my parishioners have been more or less protected from this constant vulnerability to death and isolation and defeat that the Psalms just presume all human beings regularly experience.
But now we’ve spent several weeks in a situation where we cannot hide from our own vulnerability. We cannot hide from the fact that we need help from one another to stay emotionally healthy, or that human bodies are subject to illness and death. I cannot hide from the fact that I have no control over whether some random person who decides not to respect public health guidelines infects my 87 year old father and sends him to the ICU. And right there is the moment when I need the Psalms. Let’s read from today’s. The text is below, or you can hear our Choirmaster chant it in one of the other videos today:
Bless our God, you peoples; * make the voice of his praise to be heard; Who holds our souls in life, * and will not allow our feet to slip. For you, O God, have proved us; * you have tried us just as silver is tried. You brought us into the snare; * you laid heavy burdens upon our backs. You let enemies ride over our heads; we went through fire and water; * but you brought us out into a place of refreshment. I will enter your house with burnt-offerings and will pay you my vows, * which I promised with my lips and spoke with my mouth when I was in trouble.
What I want us to look at is the movement here. As in many Psalms, we see hints of a three-step process, which Walter Brueggemann has called Orientation – Disorientation – Reorientation. The section starts with a simple assertion about God deserving to be blessed and praised. But then it moves to a place of objection and lament: we were tried, snared, burdened, crushed by enemies. What is going on? How can this be happening to us? Disorientation. And then it moves again, changing into a confession that God brought us through that time into a place of refreshment, and a turning to God afresh in light of having passed through trouble. Reorientation.
In his classic book Praying the Psalms, Bruggemann suggests that the life of faith consists of moving with God in just the way this Psalm suggests: “being securely oriented; being painfully disoriented; and being surprisingly reoriented.” A healthy Christian life usually passes through these three several times in a sort of spiral of movement. It is not static. But the temptation is always to try and make faith static. The temptation is to avoid or deny disorientation and try and force ourselves to stay in that phase of orientation, where we just say over and over that everything’s OK and God is on our side.
In the time we’re in, we’ve been forced into a phase of disorientation, and the incredible blessing we get from the Psalms is their witness that if we walk through disorientation openly and with God, it will bring us somewhere better and deeper. If we take that loss of control or that stir crazy, on the edge feeling and admit it to God and invite him into it, then it can become something he uses in all kinds of ways.
How God wants to use this disorientation to grow you will vary person to person, because our relationships with God vary person to person, Maybe the reorientation God hopes you’ll let him lead you to has to do with changing what you’ve been acting like you value most. Maybe it has to do with realizing how frazzled your soul was without your knowing it. Maybe it has to do with noticing how much you have taken for granted, or how limited your view of God himself has been. The witness of the Psalms is that there is something, for all of us, in this time of disorientation that God can use to lead us on to a time of reorientation where we are able to make a new and more mature response to God.
You can’t get to reorientation without going through disorientation, just as you can’t get to Easter without going through Good Friday. So I invite you to give some time to looking at these weeks of disorientation and bringing them to God. What have you lost? What have you learned about yourself? What are you sad or angry about? Talk that through with God. Express the anger and the sadness, and then ask him to show you who he is for you now. Not back in January, but now. If the Psalms are right, the answer will be a little different.
For you, O God, have proved us; * you have tried us just as silver is tried. You let enemies ride over our heads; we went through fire and water; * but you brought us out into a place of refreshment. Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever, Amen.