Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things. -Psalm 98
The psalms are the hymnbook of the ancient Israelites - they are words to songs that were used in temple worship long, long, long ago. In the book of psalms, you'll find hymns about every conceivable human emotion from joy to sorrow, anger to gratitude, resentment and vengefulness to peace and wisdom. And every single psalm, except for just 1 out of the whole 150, contains praise for God - even those psalms that are the most sorrowful laments or the angriest tirades turn to praising God in the end. Our psalm this Sunday is pure praise:
Sing to the Lord with the harp, with the harp and the voice of song. With trumpets and the sound of the horn shout with joy before the King, the Lord. Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it, the lands and those who dwell therein. Let the rivers clap their hands, and let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord...
Although almost all the psalms contain praise, they are not all like psalm 98. Some of them are sunny, but many of them are dark. Some are filled with praise, others express despair or even hatred. Some are very beautiful, some are more than a little ugly. Last Sunday our psalm called not only on God's judgement, but also for vengefulness upon other nations. And many spams cry out to God the nasty things they hope God will do to their enemies.
In most churches, we persist in praying psalms every week. (Although the revised common lectionary tastefully skips over a few of them...) And did you know that in most monastic communities, the monks or nuns pray through the entire psalter of 150 psalms each week or two? They pray multiple psalms at different times each day.
You may wonder - Why continue to regularly pray ancient prayers that talk about vengeance or enemies? Or why not update the psalms to be more positive, or at least add some new ones for more variety. Why stick to just these 150 old psalms? One very important reason is that since the psalms are some of the earliest pieces of Scripture we have, they connect us to our earliest ancestors. And it is deeply important to remember where you come from.
But I think the deepest reason that many of us go beyond just praying psalms on Sunday morning and develop an active and regular practice of praying the psalms, is because we have noticed that all the universal basics of the human condition are covered by these ancient pieces of poetry. Once when I was going through a particularly rough time in my life, a wise woman recommended I start praying the psalms every day. She said I'd find everything about myself in there. I've taken her advice, and over the years, I've found she was right. Psalms often speak directly to me in very unexpected ways, always assuring me that I am not alone in whatever I am going through, and often challenging me to look at my reactions to life in new ways. They help me see not only what I want to see about myself and the world. They help me confront the hard stuff.
This is not to say that every psalm you read touches your own life all the time. The religious practice of praying the psalms is not just about praying them for ourselves, but for the sake of the world. I may not be in despair when I pray a psalm full of despair, but I know there is someone in the world in despair who is not able to pray right now, so I pray these timeless words on their behalf, holding their suffering up to God. Those who pray psalms regularly become like a choir of angels praying for the whole world.
When I think about the monks and nuns who pray the same words over and over and over again, I think, that's got to get pretty tedious at times. But they've entered into a long line of religious people who have been practicing this discipline for 2000 years. They are good examples for us of the advice Paul gives to the Thessalonians this Sunday when he says, "Do not grow weary in doing what is right." A spiritual discipline is not always easy. A religious practice is not always what you can't wait to get to. Just as life itself is not always sunny and bright, the work of prayer is not just one satisfying white light experience after another. That, I guess, is why it is called work.
Taking time out of our day to remember and praise God, despite the weather, is a good thing to do. And I pray none of us grow weary in doing what is right. Whether it is reading a psalm each morning or showing up around Christ's table each week, I hope you are discovering the depth of God's love for you through your spiritual practices.