“The Lord be with you,” I proclaim to begin a class.
“And also with you,” the students answer. We follow this greeting by responsively reading a psalm aloud. My class at a Christian university meets only three times a week and reads only one psalm each time, but I’m hopeful. Even if we’re skipping down the stepping stones of the lectionary, a daily Bible reading schedule, I want to believe that something is happening: Establishing a path to lifelong thankfulness.
During a rich time in Psalms scholarship in the 1980s, scholars agreed on a big idea about the Psalms: the movement of the Psalms—many of the individual, but also of the whole book—is continually in the direction of praise. Jewish religious leaders once long ago ordered the Psalter, which often ended in praise after lament.
Gerald Wilson, author of “The Shape of the Psalms,” claims the Psalms acknowledge personal and corporate distress while turning those singing or meditating “to an alternative view of reality in which there is room in the human heart for only praise.”
“An alternative view of reality.”
I don’t live in this place often. It’s part of the “not yet”—something I experience only in part as I go about my daily life but yearn for in the future. Occasionally, I taste it in small ways: God is good despite the muckiness or even deep grief that a day might bring.
I feel closest to God when I am grateful. Not long ago, I found myself thanking God for an administrative assistant and work-study student who rescued me from a technological muddle when I adjusted to a new computer—a relief, however insignificant in appearance, in my busy schedule. When I’m grateful, I remember who is ultimately responsible.
Thankfulness cannot be separated from praise: “the act of praise” is “at the same time gratitude and thanksgiving” because I also recall the good God has done (P. D. Miller, “Enthroned on the Praises of Israel”). The people of Israel persistently returned in the Psalms and to the collective memory of their great rescue, the Exodus from Egypt.
Praying the Psalms shapes me.
Gerald Wilson, author of “The Shape of the Psalms,” describes the Psalms as resulting in praise for the only true King, God, after the disappointment of the human kings of Israel. I, too, am disappointed in humans regularly—from the humans who lead my nation to myself.
But following the Psalter, I keep praying: lamenting and confessing, asking for the unrighteous to have consequences and the downtrodden to be raised. I pray for a good king—the best king, the Messiah—to be successful. And if I keep aligning myself to the shape of the Psalms, I praise God for the good story he has told so far reflected in the beauty of creation and his leading of his people—and for the good story he is telling about me. A rhythm is entered, habituated, indwelt.
I wonder if the words of a Middle Eastern culture more ancient than Jesus himself feels too foreign to my students. One morning, my class read aloud Psalm 141 in which David asks to be struck by a righteous man rather than be tempted into sin. But perhaps these lines give expression to something inarticulate—a desperation for the integrity my young adult students admire but find hard to live.
“Thank you for praying with me,” I end. For their own moment, they could enter another reality. There is gratitude that comes from knowing the God who has a fervency for identity and character. The words, earthy and violent compared to their lives of books, screens, and midnight study sessions, may become their own.