Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

God's own songs


Yeah, well, who wouldn't cheer for the Psalms? Just about everybody, which, N. T. Wright says, may well be part of the problem--we just take 'em for granted. 

So that's why he wrote this little book about them--the Psalms that is--to try to renew regard for them in a time when, he says, they're simply being overrun by yours, mine, and everybodys' own brand-new-this-week praise songs. Not singing and praying the psalms is unhealthy, or so goes the argument, except he says more memorably: "By all means write new songs," he says. "Each generation must do that. But to neglect the church’s original hymnbook is, to put it bluntly, crazy."

Or how about this:
The Psalms offer us a way of joining in a chorus of praise and prayer that has been going on for millennia and across all cultures. Not to try to inhabit them, while continuing to invent nonpsalmic “worship” based on our own feelings of the moment, risks being like a spoiled child who, taken to the summit of Table Mountain with the city and the ocean spread out before him, refuses to gaze at the view because he is playing with his Game Boy.
Now N.T. Wright is the kind of thinker who could develop a theology of sump pumps and make it convincing, which could well lead you to believe that this little book, despite its origins, has very little new to say. I mean, honestly, what can anyone say about the psalms that hasn't already been said?
Here's Calvin, for instance:
I have been accustomed to call [the Psalms], I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul"; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated. The other parts of Scripture contain the commandments which God enjoined his servants to announce to us. But here the prophets themselves, seeing they are exhibited to us as speaking to God, and laying open all their inmost thoughts and affections, call, or rather draw, each of us to the examination of himself in particulars in order that none of the many infirmities to which we are subject, and of the many vices with which we abound, may remain concealed.
How's that?--the Psalms are nothing less than a compendium of the human character. They "are us."

Here's Wright, extolling their virtues:
Anyone at all whose heart is open to new dimensions of human experience, anyone who loves good writing, anyone who wants a window into the bright lights and dark corners of the human soul—anyone open to the beautiful expression of a larger vision of reality should react to these poems like someone who hasn’t had a good meal for a week or two. It’s all here.
Why are they so important? Here, Wright drags "worldview" into the argument, giving it his own special twist. "Worldview," he says, has little to do with politics, but everything to do with geo-positioning, finding a place at the cross, which is to say, at God's own intersection of time and eternity, exactly where the psalms place us. The landscape we can visualize and experience through the spectacles of the psalms (he even uses Calvin's metaphor, unattributed, no less) is what Wright thinks of as "worldview," not something specifically designed by some pre-mill politicos. When we sing and pray the psalms we're putting ourselves where God's people should be, one foot firmly placed in this world, the other in the next.

The psalms won't let us navel gaze, won't let us lose ourselves in this world, won't send us off to a monastery. They won't let us think we're alone in our suffering or our exultation. They won't lie. They won't fudge.  

In fact, they may actually do all of those things he suggests, but, read together, they simply won't let us think too much of ourselves and not enough about the Creator of the universe. They both are us and become us--and that's the point.

The psalms, he might say, are the original calisthenics of "spiritual discipline." They bend our perception of time and place and even matter. They shape us as we read them. We become them in every human way.

And that's why not using them is dangerous to the spiritual health of God's people.

About ten years ago I started writing meditations on the Psalms with the goal of eventually doing a whole year's worth. I thought it would be good for me. I chose psalms on the basis of a prevalence for a particular landscape I'd come to love, those which alluded to or concerned wide open spaces and/or agricultural metaphors--i.e., the Lord is my shepherd.

It took me far more than a year to finish, but I did it; and today, somewhere on the little auxiliary hard drive hooked up to my computer they all reside (don't worry, they're backed up).  Two books came out of that bundle, but there are a ton more so every Sunday morning I pull one up, try to make it ship-shape, and post it here, in fact.

Did all that thinking about the psalms change me? I don't know. Knowing oneself is a quest that'll run right up to eternity.

But I know how N. T. Wright would answer that question. Absolutely, probably in ways I don't even understand.

I'd like to think that's true, but I'm not as confident as he is.

But if you like the psalms--and who doesn't?--you'll love the book. His claims get a little far-fetched once in awhile, but extremism in defense of the psalms is certainly no vice.

I loved it.

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