In retrospect, I am not proud of this. I'm surprised at my parents' forbearance. On the other hand, I still go to church today, unlike many of my peers, so maybe they were on to something.
It is what it is.
The portions of the liturgy that captured my imagination during my teen years were musical in nature. I loved the hymns. I sang the liturgy loud and clear, sandwiched into a pew between my parents and my grandparents. Even in that early period, I think I was preparing myself to be a worship leader, because I would chant the leader portion of the liturgy under my breath. My favorite always was and still is the Proper Preface.
Another favorite: The psalms, pointed and chanted. For those unfamiliar with intoning the psalms, I've included a photo from the hymnal I grew up with at St. Paul Lutheran in Davenport. In that congregation, we primarily rotated between the first three tones listed at the top of the page.
Over time, the psalms seeped into my bones. Certain of the psalms are my go-to resources for prayer and comfort. Psalm 23 in times of trouble. Psalm 22 when I wonder where God has gone. Psalm 121 for hope. Psalm 46 as trust in God's strength. Psalm 1 when I dwell on the incredible beauty of God's law. Psalm 150 when I want to praise.
The psalms weave their way in and out of almost everything I pray and believe. They really are, as many have called them, the Prayerbook of the Bible. They tie together so many streams of what the Scriptures record. Many of the psalms (like Psalm 78) record the salvation history of God in miniature. Others (like Psalm 119) implement intricate poetic devices (acrostics) to celebrate God's law.
There is a repleteness to the psalms that is simply incomparable.
On the other hand, the psalms can be dangerous, inasmuch as some of the prayers of the Psalter, sung by a congregation, are unlikely to actually represent the lived experience of the community praying those prayers. There are prayers of anger, prayers for violence, prayers almost of hate. In the hymnal of my youth, these portions of the psalms were excised from the hymnal. All that remained were psalms or portions of psalms deemed by the hymnal committee appropriate for corporate Christian worship.
However, in the 1990s (when I started college), a group of liturgical theologians initiated a movement to bring the practice of lament back into corporate worship. By the time the new hymnal of the ELCA was completed, this liturgical renewal movement had some influence, so the new ELW includes not only a set of hymns of lament, but also the entire Psalter, rather than an edited version of the psalter.
I think my first exposure to this possibility, that a community could and should pray the entire psalter, even including the petitions that do not seem authentic to their own experience, came upon reading Kathleen Norris's The Cloister Walk.
As she retreated with a Benedictine community and became an oblate with them, she discovered the cadence of the daily prayer offices centered in the psalms. She writes:
I really had never encountered the Psalms deeply until I started hanging out with these monks and nuns and praying with them because they do the Psalms every day, all day. You go through the whole book of 150 Psalms in about four weeks and then you start over again. So you really become familiar with them, and that has been a resource now when I’m angry or I’m grieving or something. I can think of a line from a Psalm. It’s sort of become part of me now. And so, that’s been really a blessing.
|Now, release your anger. Only your hatred can destroy me.|
The topic of the psalms and how they connect to our lives, however, keeps circling around. Most recently, Martin Tel has written a wonderful meditation on these Necessary Songs, in which he makes a case for singing the entire Psalter, inclusive of the "dark psalms," such as Psalm 79 (read it to see for yourself why it has often been excluded from hymnals).
Similarly, Bernd Janowski's seminal commentary on the psalms, Arguing with God: A Theological Anthropology of the Psalms, makes the case that lament is simply central to the human's religious life before God, and the psalms open space for lament. If we cannot take our anger, our hatred, our lament, our disgust, to God, where else can it go?
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed:
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed:
All the things of which the Psalter speaks, which individuals can never fully comprehend and call their own, live only in the whole Christ. That is why the prayer of the Psalms belongs in the community in a special way. Even if a verse or a psalm is not my own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the community; and it is quite certainly the prayer of the truly human Jesus Christ and his body on earth.