Ancient Words, New Light: How Studying Psalms Prepared a Pastor
- Tuesday, May 18, 2010
The call came on my day off. It was not a good time. Christmas was barely past. I was considering a tantalizing job opportunity, and my days had been filled with intense family conversations.
It was a friend and former church staffer on the phone. "Couldn't it wait?" I thought. My reaction signaled inner spiritual malaise and a flunking grade at clergy balance.
"I'm so sorry to bother you on your day off," she said.
"This had better be good," I thought.
"But my friend's 3-month-old granddaughter died last night. They don't know what to do and don't have a church. Is there any chance you could visit them?"
Even a weary pastor recognizes a holy moment. "I'll be right there," I said.
As I drove, I found myself thinking the ageless pastoral question, "What do you say at a time like this?" Where do you find words for a family that has just lost a child? What seminary, what therapeutic training, gives wisdom for such a moment?"
The family was scattered through the house. The jittery, 20-something father bounced between rooms. Dialing friends and family, he tried to answer the unanswerable: What happened? The grieving mother was in despair. She replayed her nightmare morning. Her daughter had been healthy the night before. But at her pre-dawn feeding, the child was too still, breathless. They called 911. Firefighters charged to their home. City police arrived moments later, sealing off the bedroom as a possible crime scene. Each team of rescuers brought help. But they also came with questions that felt like an interrogation to a family stunned by grief.
We sat around the kitchen table: anguished young mother, grieving grandmother, loyal friend and unknown pastor. The step-grandfather shifted positions. Sometimes he sat listening from a nearby couch, other times he stepped outside for a smoke. What do you say?
"Tell me about your daughter," I said to the mom. This seemed to refocus her angst. Delights poured out, favorite words and phrases, the child's winning smile and laugh. But even holy remembering didn't bury her question: "What did I do wrong?"
Biblically unschooled, she frantically searched her smorgasbord of spiritual ideas for comfort. "Maybe God needed an angel to share joy with more people?" She tried again: "Maybe God took her so she can help Jesus save people?" Then guilt gushed out: "Every night I prayed with her, 'Now I lay me down to sleep I pray the Lord my soul to keep…' But last night was the first time I didn't pray with her. Is it my fault?" Our collective "No" was deep enough to fend off her spiritual formula gone bad.
After a time, I sensed the conversation winding to a close. After 20 years, a pastor knows when it is time to move on. But the familiar litany of conversation, Bible reading and prayer would not do for such restless, irreligious folks. What could I say?
I turned to an ancient guide. I had been prepared for this moment by a discipline that our congregation had undertaken that year. As a community, we had been studying the psalms -- engaging even those psalms overflowing with vengeance or questions.
Even in less tragic situations, we often struggle for words. But the psalms taught us to pray our inner tangles. We've prayed Psalms 123 with a man whose young wife was in cancer surgery and Psalms 27 with a woman wondering whether to leave her addictive husband. We've spoken Psalms 136 to prepare us for Communion. Even psalms can be clipped into formulaic clichés, but taken as a whole they make us wiser than our teachers (as Psalms 119 says).
During that year, which ended in August, each sermon was based on a psalm. The project, which we called "Psalms in the Suburbs," was funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. through the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship. Small groups studied, prayed and memorized psalms. Individuals designed custom studies. Some invented litanies, praying a favorite psalm each evening. Some read the entire Psalter in a month. Families taught psalms to their children. An English-speaking college student read the Psalter in Spanish. One young mother reflected, "I was surprised by the honesty." Hearing some yell at God and others sound self-righteous she wondered, "Is that really OK?"
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