The Psalter – a Prayer book for Every Season

A Homily preached in the Chapel of St Peter on Monday 3 August 2020.

Psalm 77 & Psalm 118

As I address you this morning, I am very conscious of the sad fact that we are facing the immanent return to off-campus learning for all students. This service, therefore, is, for a while at least, the last one recorded from the Chapel with students participating.

My heart is still heavy from hearing the news Sunday afternoon of the further lockdown measures of our society. With the numbers of infections not going down, I suppose many of us had suspected further restrictions would arrive. But even though we could see it coming, it is natural to feel flat right now. How could we not? But we cannot change the situation, all we can do is to make the most of every day and we know that, here at Melbourne Grammar, we can adapt and teach and learn remotely and we can do it well.

In times such as these, emotions run high. Some people feel angry, some people feel relieved, others feel bitterly disappointed and some are simply grateful for their health and their family. Many of us might feel all of the above at the same time.

Whatever, you feel, I advise you to make room for your feelings. Allow yourself to feel whatever is happening inside you, even though it may not be pleasant. Part of a healthy and honest spirituality is to be true to oneself and then bring all of ourselves to God in prayer.

Today we heard two psalms from the bible taken from the book we call the Psalter which is the collection of 150 psalms attributed to King David. In a sense these ancient songs are very modern in the way they make room for the whole human spectre of emotions. They express all the many facets of what it means to be human: from feeling angry, having doubts about life, God and ourselves, to lamenting what is happening around us and even to having feelings of vengeance and hatred. On the other hand, the psalms also continually express feelings of gratitude, bliss, gentle meditative ponderings and feelings of praise, awe and wonder.

The psalms have it all. Often small bibles are printed with only the New Testament and the 150 psalms and then given as gifts. The psalms have always been the favourite prayer book for Jews and Christians, particularly for the Anglican, Christian tradition which insists on psalms being prayed communally in both public liturgy on Sundays and at the weekly or daily service of Evensong.

We know that Jesus himself knew and prayed the psalms. On the cross, for example, when he hung in agony dying, he quoted from psalm 22 when he lamented and expressed his feelings of abandonment crying out: “my God, my God why have you forsaken me”. Little later just before he died, he prayed the words from psalm 31, when he said: “into your hands, oh God, I commit my spirit.

The psalms help us find words for what we may struggle to express.

For example, we just heard a portion of psalm 77 which expresses a deep yearning for God as well as a sense of despair and confusion with the psalmist saying: “has God forgotten to be gracious, has his steadfast love ceased forever…my soul refuses to be comforted”.

How deeply we can connect right now with the psalmist’s doubts and yearning for better times. We too long for a time with no virus; for relationships, fun and laughter and normal human life the way it used to be. We may feel that God has abandoned us and with the psalmist we may lie awake at night pondering and meditating on what life used to be like.

Sitting alongside the psalms articulating sadness, doubt and fear are the many psalms which express a profound sense of gratitude, joy and praise of God.

For example, we just heard psalm 118 where the psalmist gives thanks to God for his steadfast love, for his mercy and everlasting compassion. The psalmist calls to the mind the wonders that God has done to the people of Israel and he gives thanks for the light of God given to each new generation.

The Psalter is indeed a prayer book for every season. The Spirituality of the psalms provide us with words to express our emotions and thoughts, whatever might befall us and however we might feel.

As we commune with ourselves and make room for our emotions which may very well contain many contrasting feelings right now, the psalter is there for all us to dip into and help us to express ourselves. Perhaps this lockdown you might pick up one of the psalms and pray it?

As you work through your own feelings and thoughts in the weeks to come, remember to be gentle with yourself. Accept yourself and try to share with your family how you really feel.

At times we feel vibrant and blissful and we give thanks for those moments of grace; at other time we cannot see the meaning of it all nor when this time will come to an end. Such is human life. We are invited to be fully human and bring all of ourselves to God who is the ground of our being.

In closing I offer you psalm 126 which expresses how pain and despair eventually will give way to joy and gratitude:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
    and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
    like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
    reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
    carrying their sheaves.

May God bless you and keep you. 

Rev’d Hans Christiansen
Senior Chaplain