I make no secret of the fact that if I could teach only one book of the Bible, I would choose the Psalms.
My belief is that the psalms are intensely personal. I teach them in this manner. I maintain that an individual wrote these words for himself or herself, and less for the community—though the community is welcome to use but not critique them. Each expresses an individual’s experience and feelings, as much as his/her thoughts. The psalmist does not ask the permission of the other to say something in a particular way or with a particular emphasis. He/she offers no apology for disturbing imagery or vocabulary. Even the way in which the psalmist depicts the Almighty can demonstrate that his/her prayer arrives without rehearsal and rewrite.
My intent in this essay is not to explain or justify my approach to the psalms, but simply to state it. That seems to illustrate my point. I can imagine each prayer written at a particular time and place and in response to a particular experience. In a moment of enlightened self-knowledge and expression, the psalmist pours out what is on his/her mind and heart. And, there it is. We can speak and pray with the psalmist, but we receive no permission to argue with him/her. “If you do not like the psalm, then go read or pray with something else.”
When I teach the psalms, I insist that the student not “Christianize” the text too soon. One needs to appreciate it in its original culture and historical context. Only when one appreciates something of this environment can one honestly begin to ask questions such as “how did Jesus pray this psalm” or “what does this psalm say to me, a Christian?”
The psalms have risen to the top of my mind as our world deals with the issue of the coronavirus. I wonder whether my prayer in this context could begin to take the character of a psalm. Many people offer wonderful words to the Lord in the midst of this situation, but none that I have seen put me in mind of a psalm. Of course, my psalm would need to be Christian, because that is who I am. The mystery of the created order, the incarnation of Jesus, and the healing offered by the Holy Spirit would all need to find a place. Diagramming this prayer would go against the spirit of the psalm that I have been espousing. I would need to create the psalm without you in mind. If I thought too much about your reaction to it, I would change it to be more interesting and pleasing to you—and thus less of my own.
I love Mary’s psalm, the Magnificat, because it flows from within her as a felt and known expression of where her life has led her. I know that Vincent and Louise had psalms within them. I can sense what character they would assume. I am not ready to write a psalm. The thought attracts me, but the freedom required to do it well does not yet abide in me. I sense the need to pray that I might pray better. A psalm would be a beautiful symbol of that goal.