My calling is centered around language, as language is the way to communicate, to express. In my pastoral role, it is my charge to speak to the community and for the community — to express the experiences and life of the community and to help us all find meaning in our individual and shared experiences. But yet, for myself, I often lack words, I lack the ability to sufficiently translate my experiences into the limits of language. This is especially so in my attempts to speak with God.
Much of this Lent has been spent in the hospital, periodically standing on the boundary between this life and eternity. As I have recently written, nighttime was particularly isolating. When the doctors go away, when the tests and scans and procedures are done for the night, and all that surrounds me is the sound of monitoring machines and the hiss of the oxygen tube, I am left without anyone to which to speak or for which to speak. There is no communal life or experience to articulate. It is just me, overflowing with fears and worries and pain, none of which will abate, and I lack words to offer to God.
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eye wastes away from grief,
my soul and body also.
For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,
and my bones waste away. (Psalm 31:9-10, NRSV)
The psalms are at the center of scripture. While my Bible includes the Apocrypha and the center is actually Jeremiah, I still hold this to be true. In my mind, the psalms are always, and will always be at the center of the Bible. It was one of the first Bible book locational tips that I learned as a child. The Book of Psalms is at the center of the Bible. No need for the table of contents, no need to thumb through unending onion skin pages. Just find the center and open it.
I think that there is something symbolic about this location of the psalms in the Bible. After all, the psalms are common words. Penned by an individual and in particular circumstances, but possess a universal voice that extends across space and time. After all, here we are, thousands of years later and on the other side of the world, finding meaning and comfort and expression in these very same words. Words that give words when there are not any. Prayers that aid those who cannot pray. A voice which can support the voiceless.
They are words that are so personal they could have been written for me or by me, but they are not my words, they are shared words, family words, and they are part of a greater story, a grander story. It is not my story, but rather, a story in which I can find myself — a story in which we can all find ourselves.
I am the scorn of all my adversaries,
a horror to my neighbors,
an object of dread to my acquaintances;
those who see me in the street flee from me.
I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.
For I hear the whispering of many—
terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me,
as they plot to take my life. (Psalm 31:11-13, NRSV)
Truly my experience is not simply mine, but an experience that others share in particular circumstances, in particular ways.
I know that my experience is not completely unique, but only an outgrowth of the common experience of humanity and the experience of faith. So the psalms provide not only the words that I lack, but also a reminder that this is only one expression of a common and shared life.
The psalter, more than anywhere else in scripture, is where we can find ourselves in this grand story. I have a difficult time relating to nomadic people dwelling in the desert. But doubt, suffering, pain, anxiety, turmoil? These are things to which I can relate. These are things to which all of us can relate. It is no coincidence that the twenty third psalm is read at so many funerals and during times of crisis. It is no coincidence that people across space and time have found comfort and solace, and expression in the psalms. It is a personal book, but it is not a private book.
These words not only give voice to our suffering, they give strength to our deep doubts, give hope to our despair, and bring forth a glimmer of light in the midst of the darkness.
But I trust in you, O Lord;
I say, ‘You are my God.’
My times are in your hand;
deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your steadfast love. (Psalm 31:14-16, NRSV)
During Lent, many of us give up something or take on something as a way to draw closer to God and, in a small way, seek to identify with the sufferings of Christ. But we can do this because we know that Easter is just around the corner. We know how the story of Jesus ends, that it doesn’t end with a grave, but rather, ends with a glorious triumph over death and light bursting forth to chase away darkness.
The psalms also remind us of this. They remind us that in our suffering, God suffers with us. They remind us that even when we are in trouble or turmoil, God has not and will not abandon us. They remind us that even when God seems distant or even absent, God still listens to our lament and hears our cries, and is so often so close that God can place our tears in God’s own bottle (Ps 56:8).
The psalms are my words. They are your words. They are our words.
They are the words of my experience, and of our experience. The psalms give us words when there are no words.