A Memoir in Psalms

Apr 30, 2016

“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.” — Psalm 84:5

Combine Bono, Eugene Peterson, and the Psalms, and you can have 27,400 shares on social media in just a few days. We know this because an outfit called Fuller Studio—the media resource arm of Fuller Theological Seminary’s Brehm Center—dropped a short film earlier this week featuring the internationally acclaimed rock star (Bono, of U2) and the internationally acclaimed biblical scholar and writer (Eugene Peterson) talking together about the Psalms.

Bono and Peterson are friends, an odd but endearing phenomenon whose origins the little film explains. They agreed to meet at Peterson’s Montana home, where W. David O. Taylor, a Fuller professor and Director of Brehm Texas, would engage them in conversation about their shared love for the Psalms. You can view the film here. It’s worth 20 minutes of your time.

For those of us who have loved the Psalms all our lives, nothing either of our two wise saints have to say will come as much of a surprise. Peterson explains how he first encountered the Psalms as a kid, in their puzzling metaphorical strangeness: “They showed me that imagination was a way to get inside the truth,” he recalls. Bono praises the Psalms’ honesty and calls for Christian artists to portray the world as it is and give an honest account of emotions, just as the Psalms do. While discussing art as a response to violence, Peterson remarks, “We need to find a way to cuss without cussing, and the imprecatory psalms surely do that.”

So nothing earth-shaking here, and that’s fine. The Brehm Center’s goal is to encourage people to explore the resources of the Psalms for personal devotion, worship, and the creation of art. The message is certainly getting out there. Notices were posted this week on Crosswalk.com, Sojourners, CBN News, Christianity Today, and the Washington Post. David Taylor has helpfully gathered on his blog both Bono’s and Peterson’s “sayings on the Psalms.” My friend John Witvliet, Director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, posted a celebratory status update on Facebook containing nearly 100 names of people connected in some way to the Institute’s work on Psalms. The Psalms have been a “key theme” in the Institute’s programming for a long time, and John calls us to gratitude for all the people who help the church pray the Psalms in a million lively, creative, passionate ways.

“The Psalms are about a way of life,” he writes.

A way of life. This led me to reflect on how the Psalms have shaped me since girlhood, and I decided to page through them and try to honor the ones I have loved especially deeply. My resulting “memoir in Psalms” is more a scratchy pencil drawing than a full portrait. The Psalms have soaked into my spirit. Snippets, verses, songs, liturgies. Round after round of reading through them as the seasons turn. Prayer and study, including my scholarly field. My life is rich with the Psalms, and I am so grateful.

Here are my favorites. You can tell about yours in the comments.

Psalm 1
Loved this one during the years I was writing my dissertation and giving birth to the first two babies. “She is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.” This encouraged me. At the time, I was reading Marchiene Rienstra’s wonderful devotional on the Psalms, Swallow’s Nest. So I kept changing the pronouns to “she.”

Psalm 13
Prayed this one with a student I often met with as she tried to find God in the wilderness of trouble, sorrow, and hurt. We wondered together: When will her life turn from vs. 1-4, “How long, O Lord?” to vss. 5-6, “My heart rejoices in your salvation”? We’re still waiting, though she’s doing better.

Psalm 19
Memorized during Lent once. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” and “The commands of the Lord are radiant.” I always think of artists and scholars when reading this.

Psalm 23
Of course. At the very heart of the faith. Memorized as a tiny child and continue to drink from its still waters.

Psalm 25
Got me through a time when I felt betrayed by someone I loved. “Do not let me be put to shame.” “Remember, O Lord, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old.”

Psalm 27
Meant a lot to my mother. I know this because I now keep her Bible, and this psalm is all marked up. Verse 13 is circled, “I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”

Psalm 30
This one helped get me through postpartum depression. “When you hid your face, I was dismayed.” I prayed it so hard.

Psalm 34
Memorized during Lent a few years ago. Full of joyful riches. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”

Psalm 37
A favorite during a semester abroad in 2004. We had a view of a pasture out our back window, so “dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture” made sense.

Psalm 40
Memorized the first half before giving birth to my oldest. “Many, O Lord my God, are the wonders you have done….; were I to speak and tell of them, they would be too many to declare.”

Psalm 51
Memorized as a high schooler. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.” Did I feel guilty about something? No, someone just told me it was an important psalm. Knowing it has served me well over the years, especially for my scholarly work on the Psalms during the English Reformation. Everyone did a version of this Psalm in those days. In the old Book of Common Prayer morning prayers begin: “O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.”

Psalm 67
Used this one as the theme when writing the litany of rededication for Calvin’s Covenant Fine Arts Center, the building where I work. “May all the peoples praise you.”

Psalm 90
When my mother died a year ago, my husband and I went together to sit with her body for a while. I asked him to read this psalm. “The length of our days is seventy years—or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.” We cried and prayed, needing these words when we had none.

Psalm 91
Another one marked in my mother’s Bible. Vss. 14-15 are bracketed, and all the pronouns changed to “she” and “her”: “’Because she loves me,’ says the Lord, ‘I will rescue her.’”

Psalm 95
I still remember the setting of this that we sang in junior high, jagged and syncopated and urgent. “In his hands are the depths of the earth.”

Psalm 100
Memorized in elementary school just about every year around Thanksgiving: “we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.”

Psalm 103
Sang the old Psalter Hymnal version of this at my wedding (“O Come, My Soul”). We sing it from memory at all family functions: funerals, weddings, ordinary Sunday meals. It’s a multi-generational tradition. “O come, my soul, bless thou the Lord thy maker.”

Psalm 119
Not many people love this psalm, but I do. I’m always glad when I get to it in my regular round of psalm-reading. “I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free.”

Psalm 121
Preached a sermon on this psalm in 2011, and it was evidently a sermon I needed, as I continue to think of it often. God is a shomer, a guardian, a watcher—“he will watch over your life.”

Psalm 130
Sang the John Rutter setting of this, from the Requiem, with my beloved choir at Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa, around 1995. “Out of the depths have I called unto thee, O Lord. O Lord, hear my cry.” Cannot read this psalm without hearing that cello solo.

Psalm 131
“[L]ike a weaned child with its mother.” Helped me through the early years of graduate school and teaching.

Psalm 139
Memorized this one as a teenager, too. Smart move. When God seems far away, this psalm is the answer: “you have searched me and you know me.”

Psalm 143
Got me through another period of struggle with depression. “I spread out my hands for you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.”

A couple things strike me about this inventory. The importance of memorization, for one. The way that these texts ripen in my spirit over time, coming back to me when I need them in a new stage of life. And gratitude for all those who gave me these gifts, through prayer and study and song, over the decades. I hope I still have a long way to go on this pilgrimage, and I go rejoicing, this prayer book in my hand.

I have published books on motherhood, Christian spirituality, and language in worship. I write regularly about all sorts of topics for The Twelve, and I teach literature and writing at Calvin College, where I have served on the faculty since 1996.

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