Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Psalms of Faith

A reflection for compline using Psalm 77.

Some words from the Psalm we have just said together: ‘You are the God who worked wonders • and declared your power among the peoples’.

As we consider the Psalms this Lent, it is worth remembering that the Psalms are the ‘Prayerbook of the Bible’ (Dietrich Bonhoeffer). They are a collection of hymns and prayers that were in regular use in Israel, in the Temple, in Synagogues and in homes, in public worship and in private prayer. The Psalms formed the basis of Jesus’ own prayers, and they, along with the book of Isaiah, are the most quoted book of the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament. The church has used the Psalms since the earliest days. St Paul urges his readers to praise God in Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. The offices of morning and evening prayer and also of compline consist of saying or singing the Psalms and reading the Bible. Many of the responses that we use in these services are taken from the Psalms. In that sense, the Psalms form our faith. They are given to us so that we can use them in our own prayers, and they are a model for our prayers.

Tonight my theme is ‘Psalms of Faith’, which may seem a little odd as all the Psalms are Psalms of faith. But it is worth singling this out as a theme within the Psalms because of the way in which the Psalms treat faith. If you want an example of a Psalm that has a sort of polished and pious faith, then I suggest you look at Psalm 119. It is very long, and concerns the Psalmists relationship to the Word of God, or the Law. It’s the sort of school swot among the Psalms, saying things like “My delight shall be in your statutes and I will not forget your word” (Ps. 119.16) and “Lord, how I love your Law! All the day long it is my study” (Ps. 119.97).

But I have chosen to focus on Psalm 77 not just because it is shorter, but also because it is a Psalm that has many of the themes of faith that can be found throughout the Psalms. Let me quickly point out four features of faith in the Psalms that I think are helpful to us:

First of all the Psalm is direct and immediate in its calling on God: “I cry aloud to God and he will hear me” (v1). When the Psalmist speaks to God it is not well mannered, it is crying aloud. And it is not just when life is good and easy, but also ‘in the day of trouble’ (v2). God is in the Psalmist’s thoughts even when things are so awful that speech it impossible (v4).

Second, there is an honesty to the Psalmist here. I read verses 3 and 4 as being a bit self-pitying. It’s a bit cloying and clearly an exaggeration to say that ‘I am so troubled that I cannot speak’ (v4). The Psalmist obviously can speak, which is how he can tell us that the can’t speak! But this self-pity and exaggeration is not refined out in his prayer, it is emphatically left in. This is the Psalmist as he really is, not the Psalmist in his Sunday-best.

Third, the Psalm of faith has its fair share of doubt. The Psalmist asks questions of God (Will the Lord cast us off forever? Has his loving mercy clean gone for ever? Has God forgotten to be gracious?) and expresses his fear that God is impotent. More of doubt next time, but just notice this doubt within the Psalm of faith.

Finally, the Psalmist recounts the story of God’s action with his people. He retells the story of God delivering the people of Israel through the Red Sea. ‘Your way was in the sea and your paths in the great waters; but your footsteps were not known’ (v19). In those last few words, he gains courage from the way that God delivered his people even though they could not always see where he was leading them.

So immediacy, honesty, doubt and stories. These are the features of the faith shown in the Psalms. If the Psalms are models for our prayers, how might we pray with faith like that shown in the Psalms? The immediacy of the Psalmists faith challenges us. Do we pray wherever and whenever we want, and expect God to hear us? We can, and we should. God is more ready to hear than we are to pray.

And we can also be honest with God, we pray as ourselves not as the people we’d like God to think we are. God knows all the secrets of our hearts. He knows when we are being self-pitying or exaggerating or being overly modest. He knows who we are, and he wants us to pray to him, not some Sunday-best caricature of ourselves.

Doubt is our subject for next week. But don’t be afraid of doubt or of admitting your doubt to God. He is big enough to cope, and he knows when we doubt even when we don’t admit it.

Finally, we should let our prayers meditate on our stories. These stories are the times when God has been close to us, or has done something special for us. They give us something to hold onto in faith, even when times are hard. But the stories of the People of Israel and the stories of Jesus are our stories also. We were grafted into these stories when we were baptised, and they continue in us today. We are part of the stories that we read in the Bible, and we should read the Bible in this light.

Let me conclude with a brief reflection on the sort of faith that we see in the Psalms, in the ordinary Psalms like Psalm 77 and even in the model schoolchild that is Psalm 119. We see faith not as a series of things to believe, as though heaven were accessible by sitting a multiple choice exam. Instead we see faith as a relationship with God, a God who can be questioned, shouted at, nagged and loved. A relationship of faith that has much more to do with trust and loyalty than with anything else. Amen.

Given at Compline 19.2.8

No comments: