A Soundtrack for the Seasons of a Human Life

When preaching the psalms, we are reminded that old Israel sang about things that matter. These songs travel through seasons of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, of blessing and suffering, of joy and grief, of forgiveness and resentment. These songs travel through the intense feelings that humans have experienced. The psalms are like a soundtrack for the seasons of human life.

But this is no Gaither sing-a-long.  These songs and prayers have a lot of rough edges.  Many are likely written by David. A guy who worked fields of livestock. A guy who kept lookout for lions and bears and was willing to battle them to protect the flock. A guy who carried a slingshot into a creekbed one day and met a giant on the other side. A guy who entered the battlefield without armor. A guy who hid in wilderness caves while there was a bounty on his life. A guy with experiences to match his imagination. These are songs with rough edges, prayers that are blatantly honest. And they always bring us into the company of God.

We might be tempted to preach around the rough edges and make the psalms sound more religious. Walter Brueggemann helps us to allow the psalms speak in all of their messiness. In The Message of the Psalms he suggests the themes of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation. He suggests the flow of human life is located either in the actual experience of one of these categories or in the movement from one to another.

Brueggemann proposes that psalms of orientation address satisfied seasons of life that prompt thankfulness for experienced blessings. He proposes psalms of disorientation are laments during seasons of doubt, hurt, alienation, and suffering. These express rage and resentment and self-pity and hatred. He proposes psalms of new orientation as songs that are sung when surprised by new gifts of God, when joy breaks through despair, when light breaks into darkness.

Preach the psalms because we need lyrics that push us beyond rational thinking. We need melodies that dismantle things that seem so certain. We need tunes and tones that call us back to our homeland. Preach the psalms because we do not want to neglect such a gathering of composers and instrumentalists, of artists and lyricists, of poets and praying people that bring us back to the reality that God is interested in the seasons of human life.


A Written Sermon

“A Long Journey of Presence and Absence” (Matthew 27.45-54)

Crucifixion. The word sometimes gets lost on us as we are inclined to think about the cross as a piece of religious furniture and crucifixion as some religious ritual. But lets be clear, what happened on Good Friday at the place called skull was an execution.

The Gospels give us permission to eavesdrop, to listen in on words spoke by Jesus on the cross. Words we have come to know as “the last words.” We might find ourselves asking the question “What would we expect to hear at an execution?” Each of the Gospel writers contribute. This is not a collecting of data about crucifixion. We listen in in order to learn how to follow. We read these words with the hope to discover what it means to be a disciple.

Matthew paints a gloomy scene. Jesus is not only executed but executed alongside convicted criminals. He has received the death penalty. Passersby insult him. He is taunted and mocked. He is insulted some more. Matthew does not even mention the pain. There is total darkness. It was inevitable that emotions would be strong. It is then we get the words… “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.”

“My God, My God, whay have you forsaken me?” These are the only words from the cross we get from Matthew. We get them in Aramaic, perhaps so we won’t overlook them. Perhaps so we feel the emotion. Jesus is experiencing some strong feelings and takes this time to quote a psalm. This is not a coincidence, the psalms are words used by old Israel to navigate during emotional terrain. The psalms are songs and prayers that travel a long journey of presence and absence. This “word” is part of the practice of singing and praying the psalms. Old Israel knew about the presence of God, that is why they could sing about being led beside still waters. Old Israel also knew absence. They know the feelings of being forsaken. Some still feel it.

Mark also records these words. His is a dark Gospel with dark powers showing up in the early chapters. Even Jesus is accused of being in league with dark powers. He writes these words after the deaths of Peter and Paul. He writes them to a church in danger of losing their own life. We might say they felt forsaken. He writes so that those who feel forsaken may have hope. The early church knew what it meant to feel forsaken. Some still feel it.

Of all people we can trust Jesus speaking these words. He knows what the presence of God feels like. He knows the presence of God in healing the leper, in making the lame walk, the blind to see. He knows the presence of God when the dead are raised. He knows as he witnesses the kingdom of heaven come to earth. We can trust Jesus. Since he knows so clearly what presence is like, we can trust him to recognize absence.

What goes through our mind as we read this text? This is a word we might expect during an execution but not one we were hoping for. We hear a word like “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” and we might think “Oh that Jesus, always thinking about forgiveness.” But we read this word “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” and think “Oh no, what are we going to do with this?” Forgiveness fits nice in our vocabulary. Abandonment belongs to some other story. Yet this text reminds us, our story is one of presence and absence.

These words remind us the cross is not for safe religion. The cross cannot be reduced to a piece of religious furniture. Crucifixion is not just another religious ritual that can be cleaned up easily afterward. Pop religion will try to convince us that a scene like this is not even possible. Pop religion, pop psychology, pop songs – they all try to do the same thing. They all try to convince us they can simplify complicated things in the hope of selling something along the way. We know this all too well, we are presently getting a regular dose of pop politics.

The cross goes against the way the world works. The cross leaves the holiness of God raw in the world. This is evidenced as the temple curtain is torn and as the Son of God hangs exposed. The cross exposes a holy God and His plan of victory by weakness.

We do not want to neglect the conclusion of the scene. The temple curtain tears, the earth shakes, the rocks split, tombs open, bodies are raised, the Romans are terrified. And whatever conclusion we come to, we know, this was no ordinary execution. What are we to make of this response to Jesus three o’clock afternoon prayer? What are we to make of the way God answers the prayer of His forsaken son?

We may know what presence feels like. We may be able to point to people, situations, and activities where we have known the presence of God. We may claim to know absence. We may experience absence even when among people, in places, and during activities where we used to feel His presence. These words may leave us with questions. But they do not point fingers at us. The text simply highlights the reality of a long history of presence and absence. The text does not provide an escape from absence, instead it may imply that following Jesus may bring us into places where we feel forsaken. But Matthew reports them so we can learn to follow. Matthew wants us to know what it means to be a disciple.

Perhaps, more than anything, the text wants us to recognize that God is present even in what seems like a certain absence. That God is there even during unimaginable pain. The psalm that begins “My God, My God,…” goes on to say “You have been my God from my mother’s womb.” Further we hear, “My strength is dried up like a potsherd, And my tongue cleaves to my jaws.” Further still we hear “A band of evildoers has encompassed me; They pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones. They look, they stare at me; They divide my garments among them, And for my clothing they cast lots.” Does this sound familiar to anyone? Still further “I will tell of Your name to my brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will praise You.” And finally, “They will come and will declare His righteousness to a people who will be born, that He has performed it.” 

This is not the sad psalm we sometimes think it is. This psalm sings victory. This psalm, the prayer of the crucified one, prayed to it’s conclusion, winds up in a great congregation. We find the presence of God in a place of certain absence. Perhaps more than anything, the text wants us to know that even in our worst times, we are not alone. We journey with one who knows how to navigate dark days. We are following one who has traveled the paths of presence and absence. This is good news.

Read the Psalms for Life

In Read the Bible for Life, Donald Guthrie and David Howard hold a conversation that may be helpful for us when reading the Psalms. The following quote serves as an introduction to their discussion. “These are human words praising God, or lamenting some event or situation, or even questioning God in a reverent way. So the psalms draw us in because we recognize in them our own experiences and feelings, and they, in a sense, express for us those feelings about God or to God.”

We do not want to forget, as with other parts of the bible, that the Psalms were also “crafted in specific cultural contexts.” Most of the psalms were written “for a corporate context, to be quoted or sung in large group settings.” In fact, they refer to these psalms as hymns. The titles will sometimes include lines like “for the choirmaster, with stringed instruments.” These are psalms “that praise God for who He is and how He has revealed Himself in the world, and they are done in a corporate setting.” In contrast, some psalms are more individual, “where David or someone is speaking in the first person.” These they label as “thanksgiving psalms.”

The conversation turns from psalms of thanksgiving to psalms of lament. “Laments are the psalms where David or the other psalmists are pouring out their hearts to God, being honest about the fact that life, at times, stinks!” These psalms become important for us and are able to “open up new avenues of approaching God in times of great stress and sadness in our lives.” This may, in fact be the genius of the psalms. “They are balanced, encouraging us to be honest about how hard life can be but also encouraging us to hope in God.” The psalmist knows struggle. We know struggle. The psalms of lament give voice to our struggles.

The conversation then turns to the imprecatory psalms. It is important to put these in context with a core promise that God has made with His people. “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.” So in these psalms the psalmist is saying “God, I am your person. Your enemies are persecuting me, but I believe your promises. Do something!” So in some ways these psalms become “a confession that God will be faithful to His promises, faithful to His people, and faithful to His own agenda.” (For the record, these are sung at the top of one’s voice without need of a choirmaster. Instead of strings, a sword appears to be the instrument of choice).

The psalmists put feelings into words. This makes poetry an appropriate means of expression. And important for us to remember “if we are going to read the psalms well.” He describes similar situations as a kind of “newspaper account” in narrative but exaggerated metaphor in the psalms. It is not unusual for psalms to use graphic language or exaggeration to express feeling.

Other psalms are labeled as royal/messianic psalms. These do not primarily express emotion, instead they let us in on what God has planned for the world. A “big, cosmic-sized picture of God in control and bringing all things to His desired end is an important aspect of the worldview represented by the psalms.” These psalms emphasize “God’s appointed king as His coworker in ruling God’s people.” These become for us “songs of worship, celebrating what God has accomplished in Christ.” Let us sing.