Learning to Love the Psalms

October 21, 2013

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Hello.  My name is Bob and I…I…I… okay, I’ll admit it…I love books.  There, it’s out at last.  They say the first step is to acknowledge the problem.  Already, I feel better.

But loving books isn’t actually the real problem.  Buying books that I don’t read (or don’t finish), that is the deeper issue.  Perhaps you struggle with this, too.

There is one on my desk right now.  It’s by Eugene Peterson.  The title is, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction – Discipleship in an Instant Society.  Sounds like it could be hot off the press.  But, it is not.  It was copyrighted in 1980.  I have had it for over thirty years.  It has never been read to the end.

There is a reason I haven’t completed this book (I always have a reason, don’t you).  It is a dumb reason, really.  The book is about the psalms. 

Here is the goofy thing about that.  In our Anglican tradition we normally include a psalm in our worship.  So, week in and week out, the psalms are read and heard.  Clearly, the psalms have an important place in our services. 

One might imagine, therefore, that I would be an expert in the psalms.  Not so.  Frankly, I never knew quite what to do with them.  I read them, of course.  Many of the psalms in my Bible are highlighted, starred and underlined. 

But I never applied myself to the psalms and here’s why. There are parts that just didn’t make sense to me.  Take psalm 23, for example.  It is familiar and loved by many.  But not me.  In fact, Verse 4 has been a total disconnect.  “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me… (ESV)”. 

When my teenage daughter, Hannah, was diagnosed with cancer, I walked through that valley with her. And I was scared out of my mind.  The psalmist says that the presence of God will provide the assurance we need in such terrible times.  Well, I did experience God’s presence regularly. But I was still overwhelmed with fear that Hannah would die.  And she died.  No, psalm 23 is not my favorite.

For some reason though, I have been drawn to the psalms recently.  And, I have begun to understand them better thanks to Athanasius (c.296-373), bishop of Alexandria.  Regarding the psalms, Athanasius said, “They appear to me a mirror of the soul… they enable him to perceive his own emotions…He who hears them read receives them as if they were spoken for him.”

What a difference that last sentence has made.  “He who hears them read receives them as if they were spoken for him”.  What Athanasius was saying is the psalms are not so much speaking to us as for us.  Wow! I had been reading the psalms all wrong. 

Psalm 23, therefore, isn’t suggesting that I wouldn’t be afraid because God is with me.  Rather it peers into the deepest recesses of my soul… the places where darkness and fear reside.  Then, the psalm takes on an almost intercessory quality, “God, I have to walk this scary walk.  Please be with me and help me not be afraid.” 

Suddenly, the psalms have taken on a whole new quality.  It is as if I am reading them again for the first time.  It is great fun.  Thank you, Athanasius.

Those ancients were pretty smart.  I should probably buy some books about them.  First though, maybe I should finish some of the books I have already started.

 

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