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The Most Honest Place in Town


Last Thursday Wayne Presbyterian Church had the honor of hosting Dr. Walter Brueggemann, who (according to that great authority – Wikipedia) is widely considered one of the most influential Old Testament scholars of our time. He lived up to his reputation, giving a profound and inspiring lecture on the theology of the Psalms.

Of the many insights Dr. Brueggemann offered, it was a reminder about our use of the Psalms that has stuck with me over the past few days. As he observed, many congregations have a tendency to include only a portion of the Psalms in our worship. We return again and again to the psalms of praise, but shy away from the psalms of lament. There’s a good reason for this: it comforts us to know that the Lord is our shepherd (Ps. 23), our refuge and strength (Ps. 46), and our keeper (Ps. 121). These are wonderful, honest words, and I return to them whenever the world feels threatening or life feels overwhelming. But, if we limit our use of the Psalms to those that praise God and comfort us, we lose some of the richness of this book.

One characteristic of the Psalms, according to Dr. Brueggemann, is that they tell the truth. Sometimes this is an uncomfortable truth – the uncensored words of those who feel abandoned by God. The author of Psalm 44, for instance, rages against God:

Yet you have rejected us and abased us, and have not gone out with our armies. You made us turn back from the foe, and our enemies have gotten spoil. You have made us like sheep for slaughter, and have scattered us among the nations. You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them. You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us. You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples. All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face at the words of the taunters and revilers, at the sight of the enemy and the avenger. All this has come upon us, yet we have not forgotten you, or been false to your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way, yet you have broken us in the haunt of jackals, and covered us with deep darkness. If we had forgotten the name of our God, or spread out our hands to a strange god, would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart. Because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground. Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love. (Psalm 44:9-26)  

This psalm is uncomfortable; reading it can make us feel ungrateful, unfaithful, irreverent. But Psalm 44 also gives us honest words to cry out when we feel God has abandoned us. I firmly believe that this truth-telling is a grateful, faithful, and reverent response – for it keeps us in relationship with the one who has already searched us and known us (Ps. 139). This is the paradox of the Psalms: they capture the truth that we sometimes feel abandoned by God, and the truth that God’s steadfast love endures forever (Ps. 136). Only in using the whole repertoire – the psalms of lament as well as the psalms of praise – can we heed Dr. Brueggemann’s advice: “It’s more important for the church to be the most honest place in town than the happiest place in town.”

Posted by Sudie Thompson at 5:30 PM
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