I couldn’t sleep the other night so I crept out to our couch. I kept the lights off and read with a book lamp so as not to wake my wife. I’m working my way through the Russian authors. Which is about as helpful an antidote to insomnia as teaching drum lessons might be for a hangover.
I’m having trouble praying again. Sorry to be a broken record. But faith is a journey, right? The further a car travels, the more it needs gas. And I earnestly want to believe that God hears. But the fuel light is on.
After an hour of reading, I was still awake. I got up to get a drink of water, placing the book open and face down on the floor by the couch. The reading lamp bent under the spine, still pouring light onto the pages. I groped in the darkness until I reached the kitchen. I filled a glass with water, and turned to make my way back. But the scene gave me pause.
The apartment was shrouded in darkness: everything except the lamplight under my book. The light beneath the pages made a glowing pyramid, piercing the darkness with its light. It reminded me of one of my favorite paintings- my sister’s work actually. She’s remarkably talented; it’s a painting of tent in a winter mountain landscape. The scene is dark save the light from the tent. Well, that and the aurora borealis dancing above it. A tent in the mountains and the borealis dancing above- she captured it exquisitely. Someday I’ll put my grandkids through college by pawning it off to a dealer (I’m kidding of course; I’ll probably use the money for a sports car).
I came across a poem by Donne this week; one of the lines stuck out to me. An idiomatic version of the olde English reads: “Hear us! For until you hear us, Lord, we know not what to say.”
It’s been a hard year. A damn good one too. Headaches, laughter, breakdowns, tears, kisses out the door and nights with take-out and sitcoms: this is the stuff of life. And it’s tiring to feel empty yet overflowing with it all. Because- let me tell you- the borealis of life’s winter nights are magnificent. Before she fell asleep tonight my wife whispered: “you know I love you, right?” Like she was worried I might forget and drift off without knowing.
I couldn’t and I didn’t. But I stand in the kitchen, looking at the only light in the room, curled under itself on the floor.
And I believe he hears.
So I start by saying: it’s crazy that you do hear; sometimes it seems like you don’t. Still you hear me. Me like a lonely tent in the mountains. Me like a tired wife, lying in bed next to the imprint in the sheets left from her husband’s stirring. Me like the prayers I can’t pray because I’ve forgotten how to forget that I’ve no clue how pray. Me when all I can do is breathe and cry and smile and read Russian authors until the late AM.
Who but you could hear this? All the good, bad and beautiful, this life.
I don’t know. But I know you do. Because I know what to say.
I say that the world is harsh and welcoming like frostbite and bright tents. I say you’re mysterious and gentle, like a wife as she sleeps. And you’re sharp and bright, like the lamp light on the floor.
I say you’re magnificent but distant, like the borealis in winter’s sky. And I say that when I reach heaven’s gates I’ll ask if there’s room in your holy city for just one more. And if you say “no” then I want to be able to say that I still believe in you. I want to. But I’m not quiet ready yet (if I’m honest).
And if the golden streets are too crowded – if you’ve not yet a room prepared- then I’ll take my tent. I’ll take my tent and I’ll walk back out the pearly gates to the mountain range in the distance. There I’ll sit. In my tent in the mountains. And my light will shine in the darkness as it’s own little tribute to your presence that I see dancing in, among, above and with your beautiful city.
I looked at the light. I took a sip of water. And I silently thanked God for paintings and sisters, cool glasses of water, lamplight and insomnia. I thanked God for the words he hears- the ones I’m learning how to say.
I turned off the light and went back to bed. My wife sighed when I laid down, still asleep, but like she knew. Like she knew that he’d heard.
I was asleep in minutes.
For most of my life I didn’t really get the Psalms. I mean, sure, I’d memorized the first Psalm in Vacation Bible School. And I’ve both given and received Psalm 23 during difficult times. And yes, it is true that when my mother caught me tying my little brother to a chair because he’d stolen my Micro Machines, she had me sit and pen Psalm 133:1 (“Look how good and how pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!”) a thousand times while he was off playing with said Micro Machines . But apart from such moments, I’ve struggled to understand their purpose.
But over the past few years, I’ve learned to view the Psalms as the heartbeat of my Christian life. This was a gradual process; one for which I’m infinitely thankful. Here’s a few reasons for why this change came about:
1) The Psalms are poetic.
This might be a “yeah, duh” statement. But poetry isn’t something we usually recognize as being vital to our existence. True, humans could survive without poetry. But what a grim existence it would be. Life without music, hymns, rap battles, love ballads, radio sing-alongs and thousands of hands holding lighters while swaying in unison…such existence would be grey and could, hardly be worthy of calling ‘life.’
The same is true for faith without the Psalms. The poetry of the Psalms lifts their imbedded truths past our walls of skepticism and doubt. Because the route to the human heart is paved with poetry. It vaults love and hope into corners of our hearts untouched by narrative or legal language.
And so the Psalmists wrote some of the most intricate poems known to man. Unfortunately, many of their intricacies are lost in translation. Psalm 119, for instance, is an acrostic in the Hebrew: each stanza features the subsequent letter of the Hebrew alphabet, thus creating a visual appeal that has yet to be reciprocated in English form.
But even when unaware of such intricacies, we can and should absorb the truth behind the words on the page. Read slowly. Breathe deeply. Meditate on every line of every page. Because the Psalms speak to our soul, heal our wounds, uplift our spirits and breathe life into the heart of faith in ways unattainable with the use of other forms.
2) The Psalms address every human condition.
The band Twenty-One Pilots has had insurmountable success in the past few years. But their genre is difficult to identify; they’ll cut from poppy verses to rap bridges and then into acoustic choruses…all within the same song. Thus, some critics have memorably classified their music as “schizo-pop.”
The Psalmists are the schizo-popstars of the Bible. To such an extent, in fact, that today modern psychological experts have posited the writers may have had depressive and mood disorders themselves. Not unlike the marvelous minds of Emily Dickinson or T.S. Eliot.
Most of us are prone to divide our life between the professional and personal and then assign acceptable emotions to each. CEO’s don’t apologize, men don’t cry, spouses should only feel butterflies of love, and children must obey. This leads us to a worldview in which God is either real and good (thus, only a recipient of praise). Or, perhaps, he just doesn’t exist at all. But the Psalmists do not see life as compartmentalized; they do not draw lines between hope and despair, happiness and anger, bloodlust and love. They embrace the messy roller-coaster of life because they write from it’s murky depths and euphoric highs.
And so the Psalms teach us that God is one who is able and willing to love us whatever our current state. They tell us that God redeems our shame (Psalm 51), hears our despair (Psalm 22), blesses our labor (Psalm 127), protects us in oppression (Psalm 7), grants us discernment (Psalm 1), controls our world (Psalm 9) eases our anxiety (Psalm 46) and even holds us in our homesickness and longing (Psalm 128). The Psalms ride the pendulum of human emotions and, in doing so, testify that ours is a God who rides these ups and downs with and for us.
3) Jesus lived the Psalms.
If you’re ever thumbing through your Bible and ask yourself the question “What would Jesus read (WWJR)?” The answer is: the Psalms. Of course, Jesus knew his Torah and engaged the writings of the Prophets; but Jesus lived the Psalms.
Throughout the Synoptic and John’s gospel, the Psalms appear over 25 times either as direct quotations of Christ or as allusions by the authors. Jesus prayed with the Psalms. He and his disciples meditated and worship with the Psalms. And, as such, Christ’s ministry reflected the heartbeat of a loving, just, and merciful God. This in stark contrast to the deeds of the Pharisees, men who obviously knew Leviticus but the tenderness of Psalm 119 was lost to on their hardened hearts.
The Psalms pop up, more than any other part of his life, in Jesus’s final days and death. He referenced a Psalm in foreshadowing his own betrayal (Psalm 41:9 in John 13:18). Following the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples sang the Hallel (or ‘praise’) Psalms of 113-118. Then they went to Gethsemane. Two gospel accounts record Christ quoting the Psalms in his final moments on the cross (Psalm 22:1 in Matthew 27:46 & Psalm 31:5 in John 19:30).
The point is that Jesus’ ministry and mission were both soaked in the lifeblood of the Psalms. Consequentially, the pathway of discipleship is also paved with the Psalter.
So we should probably read them.
If you read five Psalms a day you’ll cover most of the Psalter in a single month. And many Psalms take less than a minute to read. If you engage in this exercise 11 months out of the year (one month for catch-up) you can cover the entire Psalter over 500 times in the average adult lifespan.
Not a bad deal, if you ask me.
Because the Psalms take us by the hand and lead us down trails of existence, over bridges of wonder and through valleys of despair. They guide us up winding paths toward a destination which, for now, is hidden in a cloud. And the fog of life is thick; it’s easy to lose our way.
But the Psalms point the heart heavenward; they guide us through the fog, up the mountain and beyond the realm of human comprehension. They carry us into a world of transcendence, a miraculous place where only the subject of sacred poetry could possibly dwell.
The Psalms guide us every day; every moment, every breath, they take us one more closer to the moment when the clouds will clear and we see the Wonder of Wonders face to face.