The Psalm for Today is Psalm 89, found on page 713 of the prayer book.
Traditionally attributed to King David, this collection of 150 metrical poems form a basis for Jewish, Presbyterian, and Monastic prayer, and are found throughout Protestant, and especially Episcopalian, liturgy. Sung, chanted, prayed, they are part of the Daily Offices and Sacramental liturgy. Many of us can attest that at the bedside of the dying the two things that people remember are the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.” The Psalms range in topic from praise to God to what is often called laments, many of which are dreadful graphic war accounts of smashing an enemy, children and all. Today’s Psalm 89 is one of those divided into two parts in the Book of Common Prayer, probably because of its length and considerations of its use in liturgy. And it has bits of everything, praise and lament. Most psalms begin and certainty end with praise of God, even during the most trying times. This one begins well, but then sinks into the depression of loss of God’s favor. And so we begin.
1 I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations.
2 I will declare that your love stands firm forever, that you have established your faithfulness in heaven itself.
3 You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant,
4 ‘I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through all generations.’”
We can read David for the Christ, as we often do. And given that our faith is based on God’s covenant with Jesus the Christ, and the love between them in their Trinitarian unity, and in the historical Jesus event, which is our covenant of love forever, that is fair. But by verses 39-45 the Psalmist is lamenting that God has forsaken him. And I suggest that this is not the lament of Jesus on the Cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me,” as much as a human cry to see again the face of God, to be again beloved in his favor. Starting at Verse 48, we read:
48 Who can live and not see death, or who can escape the power of the grave?
49 Lord, where is your former great love, which in your faithfulness you swore to David
The last verses talk about the Psalmist being mocked, and again we could relate that to the mocking of the Christ on the way to the Cross, but also the frustration and anger of the writer of the psalm. And then the psalm abruptly ends with a one-line doxology praising God, which almost seems tacked on. Usually after lamentation, the return to God is an epiphany, and return from sin or lack of faith in God, or some moment of spiritual relief and peace. Here it is just there. And it feels kind of lost.
We find references to the Psalms throughout the New Testament. Certainly they were important to those who came from the Temple and synagogue to the new covenant and discipleship with Jesus. And the Early Church found them vitally important to understanding their faith. But the Gospel parables and even the theology imbedded in the apostolic letters seem to have become more important, or at least more often preached and remembered. I don’t know how many of our traditions still require children to memorize psalms and parts of Isaiah and the prophets, but I think I can safely say fewer than in generations past. And so these parts of our tradition may fail to sink deeply into our souls to teach us and guide us, and most importantly, to comfort us in times of trial. And we all have those times of trial.
Here is where I am going to get personal, which I don’t do very often. I have led an exciting and hard physical life. I say that I used the chassis hard. I had a lower back stenosis which was operated on, a long hard surgery and long painful recovery. Oh, good, I thought. That is done. And I proceeded with my last chance at moving on toward seeking ordination, a call which had been with me for a long time, but which had been thwarted by some institutional confusion and a need to give terminal care to my late husband. But I was back, filled with the Spirit, praying without ceasing, favored by the Holy One. And then the nerve pain returned, and got worse and worse. Tests and more tests and the result was that I am no longer a candidate for surgery. What I have is degenerative arthritis, and they can’t trade out my parts for new ones. There are too many. Now I am living in pain, all the time, and I fear that any ministry more energetic than these reflections, which I love, is off the table. Have I failed my God? Have I ignored his call to my life’s dedication to the people of God, to his service, too long, and now have nothing? Has my Father turned his face from me? And I pray for healing. And I rest in faith of God’s grace and abundant love. But I am fragile and vulnerable. And I still wrestle with a wasted life. And all the things the psalmist said. The ups and downs of our life with God, our life in Christ. And I am seeking again in the Psalms the range of life’s emotions: fears, joys, pains, sins, angers, return to God. All of these are in the Psalms.
Lent is coming up. In the Roman Catholic church there is a list of psalms of lamentation: 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143. Lists are useful, but limited. We can find those verses which jump out at us all over. Yet this is a good list to begin with. But we must remember that it is not only the lamentation for our sins, which we are remembering as we walk with Jesus toward the horror of the Cross, but we are also walking with him toward the Glory of his Resurrection, and ours. And each of these psalms turn to God and God’s love and mercy. And that is the part we need to hold on to, and let it fill us with gratitude and joy. And I speak as one who knows. When the pain in my left leg and hip hit a plus 10 and I can’t stand up or move or breathe, it is only the love of my Abba that keeps me praying and not cursing. The psalmist wasn’t always so careful and often calls down curses on his enemies, for which we can read anything from an invading army to those with the power and lack of compassion to make our lives miserable.
What we can take grace from is that Jesus on the Cross, the Christ who died for us even as we sinned, has happened. We are forgiven. But we are also incarnate, and life is painful more often than not. Even in times of great joy we ask ourselves, as the psalmist does, will this be taken away? How secure am I? And in the world the answer is not very. But in God in Christ, very secure. He will not abandon us. And so as sudden and tacked on as this doxology is at the end of Psalm 89 let us say, “Praise be to the Lord forever! Amen and Amen.”
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is currently at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.