It feels fitting that right after Solstice, the longest day of the year – we start a 6 week series focused on the longest book of the Bible by chapter count: The Psalms (Jeremiah would win the longest book for the most Hebrew words). Our summer series isn’t planning to dive into a deep study of the structures and elements of the book of Psalms, however, I want to offer just a bit of information so that you have some tools to use as you interact with the Psalms in worship and in your own explorations in the weeks ahead.
The Psalms are a collection of songs and poems. They explore and express the visceral nature of human emotions – especially in relationship to our perception of the presence of God in the midst of life experiences. The structures of psalms often echo the experience of those emotions; moving from praise to lament to praise again. Theologian Walter Brueggemann puts it this way in his writings about the Psalms: they travel from orientation through disorientation to reorientation.
The book of Psalms is organized in a way that also follows that pendulum of experience of orientation, disorientation, reorientation. The collection is divided into 5 subsections or books and within those 5 books are 5 basic types of Psalms:
Hymns of Praise
You will recognize Psalms that are hymns of praise when you hear these key words:
- Make a joyful noise
- Give thanks
Praise is a way of being in relationship with God. Praise is a witness to God/God’s works (this is grounded orientation).
Prayers for help (roughly ⅓ of the collection) – these are laments, they cry out of the depths, how long – these express deep moments of suffering – God [whether felt or not] is present in the midst of it and these psalms request help from that God (these are expressions of seasons of disorientation)
Psalms of Trust – prayers for times of crisis – these are about experiences of pain and in the midst of that experience remembering that God is present so they have nothing to fear/the find courage in the midst (this is the beginning of reorientation)
These are not naive expressions of trust – they are not simplistic God makes all things well sentiments used to write off the moment at hand – this is the trust of someone who had experienced crisis and trauma before and has come through it experiencing God’s steadfast love – and so they continue to lean into God’s presence in the midst of very real dangers.
Songs of Thanks – These bear witness to the valleys that have been experienced and affirm that life and love have been present and are thriving.
A Call to Praise – the end of the book – and this is where we realize that praise is not just about praises offered to God – praise is an invitation, a call to action – a call to join in the song…the movement of justice and love…to live praise in our daily living…to join in the work of God in the world.
As I mentioned, we are not using this summer series to dive deeply into academic study on the Psalms. Instead, we are taking this time to explore and experience the Psalms for what they are: artistic expressions. Art has a way of cutting through the noise and chatter that our logical minds would have us use as a lens to filter in our living. Art can reach out to us, move us, inspire us, and connect dots for us beyond the scope of our own understanding. Art doesn’t have its own voicebox, yet it’s voice can be heard loud and clear, it’s messages are communicated in powerful and mysterious ways.
The past couple of months art has been a tool for connection and communication for the elementary school community that Simon is a part of. Though they haven’t been meeting in person, the community has been drawing messages of love and connection on the walls of the school building. It has been a refreshing sign of life on the dormant shell of a building normally teeming with the hubbub of a community of students and staff.
This past week the messages turned towards words of activism, support, love and cries for justice. Black Lives Matter was written on the side of the school. And with that phrase becoming part of the art, the power of art to evoke responses became evident. There were many who were jubilant at the sign of support and love these words on the wall were invoking. There were some who were offended by the school allowing such displays on their walls. And there were those who took it upon themselves to wash those messages off the bricks as if by washing away the words they could wash away their own fear and disorientation of what change, a shift towards equity and justice, might look like.
The water washed away the first round of words, only to find people coming back to write Black Lives Matter on the wall in even bigger letters. Out came the bucket and again the words were washed away. And again, even more voices of love and support came back visually even louder – covering the entire school building with messages of Black Lives Matter, No Hate in 21228, and Love is Love. It was a Psalm in action – a tug of war of emotions and cries for justice; all through the use of art.
And like the Psalms, the artwork on the building isn’t satisfied being a beautiful message stuck stagnantly on the wall. The artwork is a beginning, a call to action, a voiceless voice calling out inviting and moving people to action, to engage in the potentially disorienting work of learning, self-reflection, advocacy, and support of systemic changes that will bring equity and justice off the walls of the school and into the systems that need to be reoriented so life can thrive.
The Psalms call us to action. They call us to relationship with God, with ourselves, with creation and with each other. They are artforms offered for us to encounter and experience. They are prayers that we can pray, songs that we can sing, poems that put words to the sometimes ambiguous emotions of joy, grief, anger, celebration, bitterness, courage and fear. They remind us that humans in all times and at all stages of life have experienced joy and hardship, trauma and hope. The Psalms invite us to engage with them, to experience them, and then to live out the messages we receive from them in our daily living.
I decided for this first Sunday in this series of explorations of the Psalms that I would offer this brief introduction and that I wanted to explore a Psalm with visual art. Seeing as this Sunday aligns so closely to the solstice, I decided a Psalm that celebrates the solar orb of creation, the sun, would be a fitting and fun exploration and so I landed on Psalm 19. Instead of exploring this visually on my own, I decided to extend an invitation of collaboration to the younger participants in our community. I sent a designed postcard to every child and youth in our congregation and asked them if they would be willing to color it and send it back to me. I then sat back and anxiously waited to see if any postcards would come back to me. What joy when they started trickling into my mailbox and day after day I would check the mail to find more and more colorful creations waiting for me.
I have compiled these creations into a short video and offer it now to you as another way to experience Psalm 19 – to explore how the images might help you hear the words in new ways and likewise to let the words of the Psalm enhance your seeing of these creations.
[For those of you on the phone and not using a visual connection we will put a link out to the video on the weekly announcements so that you can see it at a future time – for now you can enjoy the accompanying narration and music.]
And here is the resulting mural of images on our dining room wall.
I have loved living with these pieces the last couple of weeks. From moment to moment in each day as I pass by them, my eyes are drawn to a different one and I take time to explore the shapes, colors, lines and textures it offers and experience the feelings it evokes within me. These are a visual exploration of one Psalm and they are each a Psalm of their own – expressing the diversity of emotions and experiences that we humans have at all stages of life. They are comfort and hope reminding us that we are not alone on our cyclical journey of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. For, like the sun which travels across the sky day after day as we twirl and around it in a constant state of reorientation, the process of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation is never finished – we keep learning and growing and breaking and making changes over and over again.
I am grateful for those of you who took the chance to help with this project. If you have not yet sent yours in and still want to, I will gladly receive it and add it to the wall. If you are a non-child or youth participant in the congregation and would like color in an image please be on the lookout for the page of designs which I will attach to the announcements this week so that you too can color in a visual psalm, send it to me and we can have this collection grow and grow in the weeks ahead.
Whether coloring in a simple design is your thing or not, I do hope you will find some way to engage with the Psalms in the weeks ahead. There are several ideas for engagement with the Psalms in the latest HYMN newsletter that came out with the Friday announcements. Make a little space for the Psalms in the days ahead, invite them into your world and see what you experience and what you might be moved to as you encounter the love and support that they extend and as you hear and answer the call to join in the living out of God’s love and justice into the world.