Friday, November 19, 2010
Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love... (The Book of Common Prayer, pg. 836)
Last night, I concluded a three-week study on psalms of thanksgiving with an extraordinary group of people in my parish. It was one of the most rewarding and energizing bits of teaching I've ever had the privilege of doing. We met for the three Thursday nights in November leading up to next Thursday, Thanksgiving.
We began two weeks earlier with a brief introduction to the psalms, using Walter Brueggemann's categories from Message of the Psalms. (I once had a rabbi friend tell me that he thought that book was about the best work out there on the psalms, Christian or Jewish.) WB categorizes psalms into three headings: psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation, and psalms of new orientation. He sees most of the psalms of thanksgiving as psalms of new orientation: that is, they grow out of an experience of loss, grief, confusion, suffering. When the writer of the twenty-third psalm says, "though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil..." it is not the naive confidence of a person who has never known pain that is being expressed, but the confident trust of someone who has walked through the valley before, who has confronted evil, but whose trust is such that hope will trump fear next time around.
So I did my teaching work. One of my favorite collects in The Book of Common Prayer is the one about reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting Holy Scripture. I take that quite literally. It is too tempting for Bible Studies to become mind games, to become more about information than formation. The "teacher" knows all the right answers of course!
I really wanted to make sure in this three-week study that we moved beyond knowing something new about psalms of thanksgiving and that we might take them in and digest them. So in week two, I had asked the group to do some homework: for each of the dozen or so people in this study to journey through the psalter in search of a psalm of thanksgiving that spoke to him or her at this point in their journey. They rose to the occasion. Last week, instead of me categorizing and choosing a dozen psalms to explore, we read poetry to one another--we shared these psalms and often the stories behind them of why we had felt drawn to them. (One of the participants had chosen Psalm 104, and when he came to verse 26 (" there goes Leviathan that You made for the sport of it...") he spoke passionately about a whale watch off the coast of Mexico that had taken his breath away.
Last night, however, was the best. I had asked this group to take the risk of each trying to see the world this week as a poet, and to take a crack at writing a psalm of thanksgiving to share. Last night was an evening of beautiful testimony, of holy conversation. One person sang her psalm, about the tiniest of details in coming home to smells and sights and sounds, to her dog and son. Another took a more cosmic approach to creation and stewardship of the earth. Another paraphrased the twenty-third psalm in what she called Psalm 2010. Several persons spoke out of quite specific experiences of disorientation in their lives which had brought them to a new sense of grace and peace, literally to a new orientation in their faith. Each person in the room felt a need to make some kind of disclaimer: "I'm no poet..." But in truth they were all poets and they all had gratitude in their hearts, even in the midst of real challenges.
They were (and are) an extraordinary gift to me and to each other, bearing witness to the human spirit, to courage and hope and love, and offering thanks to God the Creator for the bounty of our lives. Our cups, MY cup, was overflowing. Thanks be to God!