“In the Psalter you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill. ” San Athanasios of Alexandria, “Letter to Marcelinus”
In the next few weeks, I will be sharing some insights on the Psalms, specifically on praying the Psalms. I will also list some of my favorite resources for praying the Psalms in public worship, and privately.
A few years ago, through the ministry of one of my mentors, Dr. Emily Brink, I started to discover the Psalms in a deeper way. It all started with a serendipitous introduction at the house of friends in Waco, TX. Dr. Brink had just delivered a lecture at Baylor University; and my friends thought that we should meet. Dr. Brink would eventually invite me to participate at the Calvin Symposium for Worship. And I have either attended or presented many times. A colleague of mine jokes every time I go to Grand Rapids, “Oh, you are going to visit your tribe”! Well the Dutch Reformed, and the Latinos there too, have become a tribe of sorts. And the Psalms are a big reason why we have forged a special bond. People like Dr. Brink and Dr. John Witvliet have become more than friends, they have also encouraged and supported my vocation as a liturgical composer.
As a composer and a songwriter I spend a good deal of my life looking for lyrics, and writing lyrics. And, thanks be to God, the Psalms have liberated me from the burden of making up lyrics. Now, don’t read me wrong, I am not saying that free lyrics and poetry should not exist (that’s a separate conversation.) However, for composers who write in the Christian tradition, the Psalms liberate us to be messengers of the Gospel, and facilitators of Christian prayers in the Church.
I have become persuaded that we proclaim the Gospel more faithfully when we give the Psalter preeminence in our Christian services, and also in our daily prayers. From early times, the Church has taught that Christ is the voice who prays in the Psalms. As in the Lord’s prayer, God is putting words in our mouth that we can pray back to him. And, in the Psalms, Christ prays with us! Does that not give sweet comfort to our hearts? People like St. Agustine, St. Athanasios, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer speak of this. And, I hope, we can unpack what they say in the next few months. That being the case, when we pray the Psalms, we are announcing the Good News of Jesus Christ.
The Psalms are not only the voice of Christ, but they are also about Him. Thus, our praises have a deeper meaning as we celebrate God as Creator; and in the Psalms of lament, the suffering Christ walks with us in our trials.
The early Christians have also taught us that the Psalms are also the voice of the Church, and the voice of those who walk in The Way. Therefore, the Psalms are a great place for the imagination to flourish! Artists, poets, writers, composers, and Christians of every vocation do well to let their prayers, hymns, and our life together flow from the Psalter, or as Bonhoeffer calls it, the prayer book of the Church.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer. Psalm 19:14