51iJn9KMjVL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_“In his Confessions Augustine tells how he used the psalms in a period of retreat between his conversion and baptism.  ‘What utterances sent I unto Thee, my God, when I read the Psalms of David, those faithful songs and sounds of devotion…What utterances I used to send up unto Thee in those Psalms, and how was I inflamed toward Thee by them’ (Book 9.4).  For Augustine it was a time of preparation for a different life, of initiation into a new existence, a period in which habits of thought, customs of practice, and feelings about self and others and the world had to be reconstituted.  As part of the transformation, he was learning a new language.  He spoke the psalms to and before the Christian God, who was now source and subject of his faith and life.  He took their vocabulary and sentences as his own.  He identified himself with the speaker of the psalms.  He said the psalms as his words, let his feelings be evoked and led by their language, spoke the words that resonated in his own consciousness in concord with those of the psalms.  He was acquiring a language world that went with his new identity as a Christian.  It was the vocabulary of prayer and praise, the ‘first order’ language that expressed the sense of self and world that comes with faith in the God to whom, of whom, and for whom the psalms speak.

Augustine’s engagement with the psalms was not unique, but was typical of early Christianity.  In his use of them, he was entering into a practice that went back to the first generations of the church.  What was true for him held for the church at large.  Of course, not with the same profundity and intensity.  Augustine was Augustine.  But his experience was representative…As Christianity spread in the early years, it seems always to have been accompanied by psalmody…Psalmody was virtually a mark of the church, one of the constants that constituted the distinctiveness of this new religion.  We have to imagine what was happening to the mentality of Christians, living in the world of the Roman Empire and its culture, surrounded by philosophies and religions with their own views of self and world and the gods, day in and day out, week by week, year after year, letting the psalms put them in the presence of God and undertaking to be the ones who speak and think about self and world and God according to the psalms.  The differentiating and distinguishing effect on the Christian consciousness must have been incalculable.  What was true of the relation between Christians and psalmody in the earliest centuries continued to be the case during the centuries of Christian history.  The relation has been maintained in different times and practices, at different levels of intensity and intentionality.  But for Christianity as a whole, it has persisted as though something essential were at stake in the relation.” (James L. MaysThe Lord Reigns: A Theological Handbook on the Psalms, pp. 3-4)

Bonhoeffer“It does not depend, therefore, on whether the Psalms express adequately that which we feel at a given moment in our heart. If we are to pray right, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our own heart. Not what we want to pray is important, but what God wants us to pray…The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: the Prayerbook of the Bible)

Brueggemann“I suggest, in a simple schematic fashion, that our life of faith consists of moving with God in terms of:

(a) being securely oriented
(b) being painfully disoriented; and
(c) being surprisingly reoriented

The first situation in this scheme, that of being securely oriented, is a situation of equilibrium. While we all yearn for it, it is not very interesting and it does not produce great prayer or powerful song. It consists of being well-settled, knowing that life makes sense and God is well-placed in heaven, presiding but not bothering. This is the mood of much of the middle-class Church…The Psalms mostly do not emerge out of such situations of equilibrium. Rather, people are driven to such poignant prayer and songs as are found in the Psalter precisely by experiences of dislocation and relocation. It is experiences of being overwhelmed, nearly destroyed, and surprisingly given life that empower us to pray and sing…

[The Psalms highlight] the deep discontinuities in our lives where most of us live, on which we use most of our energies, and about which we are regularly preoccupied…It is the experiences of life that lie beyond our conventional copings that make us eloquent and passionate and that drive us to address ourselves to the Holy One. And it is experiences beyond conventional orientations that come to vivid expression in the Psalms…In the Psalms, we find the voice that dares to speak of these matters with eloquence and passion to the Holy One. Psalms offer speech when life has gone beyond our frail efforts to control…

The Psalms thus propose to speak about human experience in an honest, freeing way. This is in contrast to much human speech and conduct which is in fact a coverup. In most arenas where people live, we are expected and required to speak the language of safe orientation and equilibrium, either to find it so or to pretend we find it so. For the normal, conventional functioning of public life, the raw edges of disorientation and reorientation must be denied or suppressed for purposes of public equilibrium. As a result, our speech is dulled and mundane. Our passion has been stilled and is without imagination. And mostly the Holy One is not addressed–not because we dare not, but because God is far away and hardly seems important. This means that the agenda and intention of the Psalms is considerably at odds with the normal speech of most people, the normal speech of a stable, functioning, self-deceptive culture in which everything must be kept running young and smooth.

Against that, the speech of the Psalms is abrasive, revolutionary, and dangerous. It announces that life is not like that, that our common experience is not one of well-being and equilibrium, but a churning, disruptive experience of dislocation and relocation. Perhaps in our conventional, routinized prayer life that is one of the reasons the Psalter does not yield its power–because out of habit or fatigue or numbness, we try to use the Psalms in our equilibrium. And when we do that, we miss the point of the Psalms. Moreover, our own experience may be left untapped and inarticulate and therefore not liberated…

Most of the Psalms can only be appropriately prayed by people who are living at the edge of their lives, sensitive to the raw hurts, the primitive passions, and the naive elations that are at the bottom of our life. For most of us, liturgical or devotional entry into the Psalms requires a real change of pace. It asks us to depart from the closely managed world of public survival, to move into the open, frightening, healing world of speech with the Holy One.

So let us consider in turn the experiences of disorientation and reorientation that characterize human life that are the driving power of the Psalms. If we move from the premise of equilibrium, we may speak of chaos (disorder) and new order. And these are elemental dimensions, both to our experience and to the Psalms. The Psalms, by and large, emerge from and reflect precisely such situations of chaos and new order. And any attempt to take these speech-events of chaos and new order and make them instruments of conventional equilibrium is a travesty. To make the Psalms serve ‘business as usual’ misunderstands the Psalms, even though habitual use of them has tended to do just that.” (Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit, 2nd ed., pp. 2-9)

Peterson“The end of prayer is praise. The Psalms show praise as the end of prayer in both meanings of the word: the terminus, the last word in the final Psalm 150; and the goal at which all the psalm-prayers arrive after their long travels through the unmapped back countries of pain, doubt, and trouble, with only occasional vistas of the sunlit lands, along the way. This last word is also, most significantly, the first word. The verb ‘praise’ (halel) in its noun form (tehillim) furnishes the title of our prayer book. ‘Book of Praises’ (sepher tehillim) is the Hebrew title to the 150 prayers that we commonly name ‘The Psalms’…

This title, ‘Praises,’ catches our attention because it is inaccurate. Most psalms are complaints. They are calls of help by helpless and hurting men and women. They are wrung out of desperate conditions. The definitive Psalms’ scholar, Hermann Gunkel, said that the prayer of complaint was the backbone of the Psalter. How can it be appropriate, then, to name these prayers ‘Praises’? Is this false advertising, an attractive smile pasted on the cover of a book that contains a lot of pain, doubt, and trouble? Does the title, in order to involve us in what otherwise might repel, misrepresent the basic nature of prayer as something more pleasant than the data of daily experience warrants, a ‘spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down’? A life of prayer forces us to deal with the reality of the world and of our own lives at a depth and with an honesty that is quite unheard of by the prayer less, and much of that reality we would certainly avoid if we could. Do we really want to feel this deeply? Do we want to think this far? The Psalms take us to the painful heart of rejections and alienations and guilts that we could live on the surface of much more happily. If we knew that was where prayer takes us would we have ever signed on? Is the title a pious deceit?

‘Praises’ as a title is not statistically accurate but it is accurate all the same. It is accurate because it accurately describes the end, the finished product. All prayer, pursued far enough, becomes praise. Any prayer, no matter how desperate its origin, no matter how angry and fearful the experiences it traverses, ends up in praise. It does not always get there quickly or easily–the trip can take a lifetime–but the end is always praise. ‘Praises,’ in fact, is the only accurate title for our prayer book, for it is the goal that shapes the journey: ‘The end is where we start from.’

The end has far greater shaping over our lives than the beginning. That which we are made for is more significant in our development than the biology of our making. In Aristotle’s philosophical analysis of causes, it is not the first cause (the kick that gets us going) but the final cause (the lure that pulls us to the finish) that is uniquely and ultimately decisive. We are not intricately engineered genetic chips that when programmed correctly make the economy prosper; we are unfinished creatures, ravenously purpose-hungry, alive with possibilities. For humans the future is the most creative and the most essential aspect of time. Human life is that ‘paradoxical reality which consists in deciding what we are going to do, therefore in being what we not yet are, in starting to be the future.’ The Bible spends only a few pages establishing the conditions of our beginnings; and then several hundred pages cultivating in us a taste for the future–immersing us in a narrative in which the future is always impinging on the present, so that we live out of our beginnings and by the means that are in accordance with the reality of our ends. Not only as a child and adolescent but also as an adult, ‘what I want to be when I grow up’ has far more influence on what I say and do and become than the genetic code I received at my conception.

Prayer is our most intense and interior act of futurity. All prayers, by definition, are directed to God, and this aims brings them, finally into the presence of God where ‘everything that has breath’ praises the Lord. Praise is the deep, even if often hidden, eschatological dimension in prayer…’Most joy is anticipatory,’ says Karl Barth. ‘It normally has something of an eschatological character’…The five hallelujah psalms with Psalm 145 as a foundation are a cathedral built entirely of praise. No matter how much we suffer, no matter our doubts, no matter how angry we get, no matter how many times we have asked in desperation or doubt, ‘How long?’, prayer develops finally into praise. Everything finds its way to the doorstep of praise. Praise is the consummating prayer. This is not to say that other prayers are inferior to praise, only that all prayer pursued far enough, becomes praise.

This architectonic form [of the Psalter as a whole], besides assuring completeness also suggests that there are no shortcuts. The thoughtful and painstaking process of selecting, arranging, and concluding is the exact antithesis of glibness. This is not a ‘word of praise’ slapped onto whatever mess we are in at the moment. This crafted conclusion for the Psalms tells us that our prayers are going to end in praise, but that it is also going to take awhile. Don’t rush it. It may take years, decades even, before certain prayers arrive at the hallelujahs, at Psalms 146-150 with their acrostic foundation in Psalm 145. Not every prayer is capped off with praise. In fact most prayers, if the Psalter is a true guide, are not. But prayer, a praying life, finally becomes praise. Prayer is always reaching towards praise and will finally arrive there. If we persist in prayer, laugh and cry, doubt and believe, struggle and dance and then struggle again, we will surely end up at Psalm 150…

Like the notes of music that anticipate melodic completion by notes yet to come, prayer has this element of futurity always in it, pulling us to the region of completion, the region of glory and praise. The future is not a blank to be filled in, depending on our mood, by either fantasy or horror, but a source of brightness that we await and receive. Our lives are still outstanding. Our prayers give expression to lives that go far beyond the past and present and reach into what is promised and prophesied. When we pray we can no longer confine our understanding of ourselves to who we are or have been; we understand ourselves in terms of possibilities yet to be realized–in St. Paul’s phrase, ‘the glory yet to be revealed.'” (Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, pp. 121-128)

Brooks“Occasionally, even today, you come across certain people who seem to possess an impressive inner cohesion. They are not leading fragmented, scattershot lives. They have achieved inner integration. They are calm, settled, and rooted. They are not blown off course by storms. They don’t crumble in adversity. Their minds are consistent and their hearts are dependable. Their virtues are not the blooming virtues you see in smart college students; they are the ripening virtues you see in people who have lived a little and have learned from joy and pain. Sometimes you don’t even notice these people, because while they seem kind and cheerful, they are also reserved. They possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline. They radiate a sort of moral joy…They have not led lives of conflict-free tranquility, but have struggled toward maturity. They have gone some way toward solving life’s essential problem, which is that, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it, ‘the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either–but right through every human heart’…

The struggle against the weakness in yourself is never a solitary struggle. No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Individual will, reason, compassion, and character are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride, greed, and self-deception. Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside–from family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, exemplars, and, for believers, God. We all need people to tell us when we are wrong, to advise us on how to do right, and to encourage, support, arouse, cooperate, and inspire us along the way…

The people in this book led diverse lives. Each one of them exemplifies one of the activities that lead to character. But there is one pattern that recurs: They had to go down to go up. They had to descend into the valley of humility to climb to the heights of character. The road to character often involves moments of moral crisis, confrontation, and recovery. When they were in a crucible moment, they suddenly had a greater ability to see their own nature. They everyday self-deceptions and illusions of self-mastery were shattered. They had to humble themselves in self-awareness if they had any hope of rising up transformed. Alice had to be small to enter Wonderland. Or, as Kierkegaard put it, ‘Only the one who descends into the underworld rescues the beloved.’

But then the beauty began. In the valley of humility they learned to quiet the self. Only by quieting the self could they see the world clearly. Only by quieting the self could they understand other people and accept what they are offering. When they had quieted themselves, they had opened up space for grace to flood in. They found themselves helped by people they did not expect would help them. They found themselves understood and cared for by others in ways they did not imagine beforehand. They found themselves loved in ways they did not deserve. They didn’t have to flail about, because hands were holding them up.

Before long, people who have entered the valley of humility feel themselves back in the uplands of joy and commitment. They’ve thrown themselves into work, made new friends, and cultivated new loves. They realize, with a shock, that they’ve traveled a long way since the first days of their crucible. They turn around and see how much ground they have left behind. Such people don’t come out healed; they come out different. They find a vocation or calling. They commit themselves to some long obedience and dedicate themselves to some desperate lark that gives life purpose.

Each phase of this experience has left a residue on such a person’s soul. The experience has reshaped their inner core and given it great coherence, solidity, and weight. People with character may be loud or quiet, but they do tend to have a certain level of self-respect. Self-respect is not the same as self-confidence or self-esteem. Self-respect is not based on IQ or any of the mental or physical gifts that help get you into a competitive college. It is not comparative. It is not earned by being better than other people at something. It is earned by being better than you used to be, by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation. It emerges in one who is morally dependable. Self-respect is produced by inner triumphs, not external ones. It can only be earned by a person who has endured some internal temptation, who has confronted their own weakness and who knows, ‘Well, if worse comes to worst, I can endure that. I can overcome that.'” (David BrooksThe Road to Character)

TreeHere is the link to a sermon I recently gave at Alethea Church in Cambridge.

“Wisdom is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed.  The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens.” (Proverbs 3:18-19)

Dodd“That the life of the Church is, at the same time, marked by sufferings and temptations, and by renewal and growth, may seem to be paradoxical. But this paradox is only the reflection of the faith, that it is the crucified and resurrected Lord who is the beginning and archetype of the new creation. The growth of the Church is growth towards him (Eph. 4:15). The signature of the new creation is therefore conformity with Christ in sufferings and future glory (Rom. 8:17ff.; Phil. 3:8ff.), a glory which is already partly anticipated by the activity of the Spirit. The Pauline idea of a restoration of creation in the Church is rightly understood only if the main emphasis is laid, not upon any moral and social ameliorations, but upon the participation in Christ through the Gospel and the sacraments, leading to conformity with him in life. Accordingly, the Church’s conformity with creation is dependent upon its conformity with Christ.” (N. A. Dahl, “Christ, Creation and the Church,” in The Background of the New Testament and Its Eschatology: Studies in Honour of C. H. Dodd, eds. W. D. Davies and D. Daube, pp. 441-42)


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