Shortly after 9/11, a few of us attended a Cobb County Zoning Board meeting. We were there to get a variance so we could build our sign out by the road. It was the first meeting after the terrorist attacks; I didn’t envy the woman who was leading the opening prayer. As a new pastor, I had been struggling to find words to share with the congregation since the towers had fallen. What do you say in such circumstances? What can be said? I waited eagerly to hear what words that pastor would offer.
She approached the microphone, Bible in hand, opened it and began to read: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” Since the attacks, I had been afraid. Very afraid. Like most of us, I felt lost, at sea, ungrounded. The world was spinning out of control; nothing felt familiar.
Then, into the chaos came these words that were familiar: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” I was still afraid, to be sure, but those words grounded me. They were the first thing since the attacks to break through my confusion, fear, and dread. As the pastor read, I relaxed into the familiar rhythms of Psalm 27; I took heart in its hopeful images.
By the Psalm’s final words–“I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” …by the end of the reading I knew, I just knew that somehow we’d get through it.
The book of Psalms is one of the great gifts of Scripture. In other biblical books we get history, maxims, letters, and some really great stories….but the Psalms give us language to express our feelings—both the joys of the mountaintops and the valleys of despair. And—a few—help us express our anger, even our rage.
For that meeting on that day so soon after the terrorist attacks, the pastor’s choice of Psalm 27 was perfect. The circumstances in which the psalmist was writing were similar to our own—the author, too, had experienced a trauma, one that set the world spinning and left chaos and fear in its wake. As a way to deal with overwhelming emotions, the poet put pen to paper—or quill to papyrus, or chisel to stone—and got the feelings out.
Psalm 27 is a Psalm of lament. There are a few psalms of lament in the Bible that do only that—lament. But most of the lament psalms begin and end with declarations of confidence and trust in God. It’s kind of wild when you read these psalms. You start to wonder if the writers are schizophrenic or something. “I love the Lord with all my heart!” the poet will say, then in the next phrase, “Where have you gone, God? Why have you abandoned me?” Then the psalm ends with something like, “Thank you, God, for saving me!”
This movement from trust to lament to trust…while it seems a little nutty at first, starts to make sense when you think about it. In the midst of dark times—times when it feels like God has abandoned us—it can help to remind ourselves of God’s promise to be with us. Once we have invoked God’s name and presence, then it helps to name what’s going on with us—how beset we feel by our enemies, how angry we are, how frightened. Once we’ve expressed all our feelings about what’s happening, then it helps once again to remind ourselves of our trust in God…even if we’re not feeling it yet. It might help to think of these declarations of trust in God in the midst of difficult circumstances as a “fake it ‘till you make it” kind of thing. If we say the words enough when we don’t feel them, eventually we might just feel them for real.
I once declared to some colleagues that I didn’t think the Psalms were appropriate material for preaching. They are songs, I said. We should sing them, not preach about them.
Despite the fact that I’m preaching on a Psalm today, I still agree with that earlier declaration….because, while studying Psalms with our intellects is helpful, fully grasping them requires more than an intellectual engagement. To experience the Psalms in their fullness, we have to open our hearts to them, as well. We have to hear them in the context of our own lives, to accept their invitation to express our emotions—all of them—with utter honesty.
It’s the difference between saying, “God is light,” and declaring that “God is MY light.” Try that. Say “God is light.” [God is light.] Now say, “God is MY light.” [God is MY light.] Feels different, doesn’t it? “God is light,” is a statement we make with our intellects. To say “God is MY light” requires a commitment of our whole selves.
So, how about we engage this psalm with our whole selves? Here’s how I propose we do it. First, I invite you to think about something that’s causing you worry or fear right now. It might be something very personal that’s confronting you or your family; it might be something related to your job; it might be a social justice issue; it might relate to the environment or some other global issue. Take a minute and identify a situation that currently is causing you some distress. [Silence.]
Now, I invite us to read Psalm 27 together. We’re not going to fly through this thing. We’re going to take our time with it. We’re going to give ourselves a chance to hear the words, to feel the words, to let them sink in. (You can find Psalm 27 on p. in your pew Bible.)
At the monastery, when the community reads a Psalm together, the leader reads the first line, then everyone joins in on the second. Because I think that first line is key, I’m going to read the first line, then we’ll all read the first line together and go from there. Ready?
1 The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold* of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When evildoers assail me
to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes—
they shall stumble and fall.
3 Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
yet I will be confident.
4 One thing I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
and to inquire in his temple.
5 For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock.
6 Now my head is lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
7 Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me!
8 ‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’
Your face, Lord, do I seek.
9 Do not hide your face from me.
Do not turn your servant away in anger,
you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
O God of my salvation!
10 If my father and mother forsake me,
the Lord will take me up.
11 Teach me your way, O Lord,
and lead me on a level path
because of my enemies.
12 Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
for false witnesses have risen against me,
and they are breathing out violence.
13 I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!
Believe that you shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; Wait for the Lord!
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2014