Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Thoughts on Why I Read the Psalter

September 10-14, 2012. I grew quite giddy in the days/months leading up to that week. I emailed Brother Luke at The Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky. I was going to spend a week there. I would finally stay under the same roof that my hero, and, as much as a dead man can be, mentor. Thomas Merton. What a dude. Merton had been quite influential for me since high school.

So, I packed up my things and took off two days early to get a glimpse of Kentucky. I really didn’t have too much of a plan for the weekend. I thought it would be cool to see a distillery or a horse farm. I knew I wanted to see my buddy Jeff Eaton. Outside of that…I didn’t make any plans. If you know me, free-flowing trips are not my style. Once, when driving from Belton, TX to Los Angeles, I tracked every Christian radio station and made a map for us so we would know where to find the next station.

When I left for Kentucky I started feeling some pangs of guilt. I hadn’t taken a real “vacation” in years. Usually travel had been reserved for family and weddings. And this was going to be the first of two vacations in back-to-back months, so I felt uncomfortable. But I had four things in a matter of 24 hours that confirmed I was where I needed to be. In brief: there was a Whataburger…outside of Texas on my driving path. Second, though I saw no graffiti at all the entire trip, a couple of miles before the monastery someone had spray painted my initials on a bridge. Third, as I settled into the campground (Elkhorn Creek Campground) I stayed Saturday night, I pulled out my old faithful Walt Whitman anthology. The next poem read:  A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deerskin leggings. The fourth was, my buddy Jeff and his church provided an amazing hotel room for me, and a member of his congregation gave me a little pocket change to thank me for helping him finish his DMin degree.
All-in-all, I took it as confirmation I was where I needed to be.

When I got to Gethsemani, I felt a bit disoriented. I didn’t know where to check in. I got there too early. I didn’t understand the schedule. There were all of these things that just weren’t making sense. I had plans for how I was going to spend my time, but made them before I ever knew the layout and schedule of the monastery. So…I had to change.
Sometime on the first day I decided what I needed to do was “keep the hours.” For those of you who understand monastic lifestyle, you may know what that means. For those of you who think of monks and nuns as those quirky people dressed in funny robes (which could include people of the former group as well) keeping the hours meant I was going to attend each of the prayer services every day. Here was what that schedule looked like:

3:15 am Vigils
5:45 am Lauds
7:30 am Terce
12:15 pm Sext
2:15 pm None
5:30 pm Vespers
7:30 pm Compline
In addition to the normal hours, there were also two more services you could attend. They were Eucharist at 6:15am and the Rosary at 7:00pm. As a Protestant I attended, but did not partake of the Eucharist, and generally did not attend the Rosary. But the rest…I kept the hours. And it was good for me. I threw aside my plans and decided that in the morning, between Terce and Sext I would hike, generally about 6-7 miles. Always getting lost. Most of the time convinced I would be murdered by snakes. Between None and Vespers I set aside specific time to study.

And perhaps it was the intentionality of the monastic life, or perhaps it was through the reading I did, but I just became convinced that life with God starts in the Psalter. The monks of Gethsemani pray and sing through the Psalter twice a month. And some of these Psalms were sung five days a week. So, I started to read the Psalms at the monastery. When I got home I made a calendar of what days to read what Psalms. Sure, I could have gone with the old stand by five Psalms a day, but I knew that meant some long days and some lean days. I wanted a little more consistency. So I did some math and came up with the number 83. I needed to read about 83 verses a day. I started grouping the Psalms in order stopping when the number hit around 83. Then I started reading Peterson’s A Long Obedience and it dawned on me…some Psalms are family. Specifically the Psalms of Ascent (120-134) belong to one another. So, I made some more adjustments.
But what I realized was for me, and I would assume for most others, the Psalms are our lifeblood. The Psalms are the dirt and vegetation of life. They are what keep us rooted to faith being more than a rational, academic exercise. The Psalms remind us that Christianity (I won’t speak for other faiths that use the Psalms) is about humanity…it is lived…it is breathed.

The Psalms remind us that we can be pissed off about injustice and still calm our soul in worship to God. The Psalms remind us that even in depression there is consolation. They tell us that from before we are born until we die there is both faithfulness from and to God. The Psalms are our lives written by men and women long ago who understood that the width and breadth and height of all that encompasses this thing called human life is a part of the game. Piety is not merely contented, contained love that can be mastered.
The Psalms aren’t simple poetry that we should fawn over. They are lived theology…for better or worse. And we can’t dismiss their emotive nature when establishing our own beliefs. The God who thunders from the mountains is still the God that is sung about in the Psalms. The people of God who sung their history is still the people who made up the early Christian Church. And so, though I know I need to look at Paul’s writings, and understand our two creation myths in Genesis; though Deborah leading her people and Peter correcting false teachings are important; these things just do not provide the backbone.

The Psalms provide us an opportunity to realize our humanity is not a hindrance to our faith. There are things in us that will be tempered, things that need to be disciplined, but God is not shaken by our anger, our mushy love or our poetic expressions that try to capture our experience. The Psalms give us permission to be human. And I think, at least for me, that was a message that I didn’t always understand. My humanity is part and parcel to growing in faith through love. And the Psalms encourage me in that.
And that is why I read the Psalter.

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