Monday 20 July 2009

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (16/50) – Songs for All Seasons

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the sixteenth of the fifty emails.

Praise the LORD my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the LORD my soul,
and forget not all his benefits –
who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
Psalm 103:1-5

In focusing on the extraordinary events in God’s dealings with his people, we should not neglect the everyday faith of God’s people preserved in the psalms. They remind us that the story of salvation is not simply about what God has done in the past, but the foundation for our ongoing relationship with him.

Of course, the psalms take their starting point from and everywhere assume the story of God’s bond with his people, making it clear that their whole life is bound up with his work as creator, redeemer, covenant-maker, Torah-giver, the installation of his king on Mount Zion, and worship of him in the temple. These are not just songs of ‘religious’ people; these are songs of the covenant people of the Lord God.

Some of them, like Psalm 103, celebrate the Lord’s rule in praise, declaring what he does for his people. And they allow us to add our worship to them. Others belong to the rawness of life, those moments when things fall apart – the redundancy notice, serious illness, the death of a spouse, relationship breakdown, yet another spat with the teenager of the house, those words said in anger, that difficult email, a news item that causes consternation or grief. And they express with a powerful honesty what we might feel – awareness of guilt, loss of energy, sense of rejection, protest at suffering, feelings of isolation, fear, helplessness, hurt, anger, rage… Many psalms also testify to God’s grace in putting us back on track, not just to where we were, but to somewhere different, a new place. And they do so in language which is poetic, imaginative, evocative, and wide-ranging in their use of imagery.

In all of this, we are reminded that faith is not just content derived from Scripture but a prayerful response to the God of Scripture. The psalms hold together talk about God and talk addressed to God, and so they work not simply by matching our changing moods at any given time but by shaping the way we pray – collectively as well as individually – and shaping us in the process.

And they do this because they are not finally about us, but about God; not about the bricks and mortar of the temple but the presence of God, not about King David but the exercise of God’s rule, not about following our own paths but following the way of the covenant God.

For further reflection and action:

1. What fresh insight, if any, does this week’s email contain that will make a difference to the way you read and pray the psalms? From your own experience with the psalms, what important insight has the email left unsaid?

2. Read and reflect on some of the psalms that tell the story of God’s dealings with his people: e.g., Psalms 68, 78, 105, 106, 136. As Christians, this is our family story too, as much about us as about Israel. What hints do the psalms provide as to how this story funds our everyday lives as disciples of Christ?

3. Even a superficial reading of the psalms suggests that life will be interrupted, if not punctuated, by moments and periods of distress. Why do we struggle to incorporate this factor into church life, teaching and worship, and how might we begin to address it?

4. Take Psalm 103 or another one you’re familiar with, and try different ways of praying it: (1) say it out loud, praying as you read; (2) read it, pausing now and then to add your own prayers to its lines, (3) paraphrase it, putting it into your own words; (4) pray through its possible implications for your week ahead; (5) commit it to memory over the course of the week.

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