When I first started meditating on the psalms, I skipped the ones that irritated me. This was a necessary thing for me. At the time, I was trying to open my heart to a religion whose most visible proponents labeled me an abomination and who were, in my opinion, raging hypocrites and self-righteous jerks.
Coming to believe in anything spiritual is a process for me (we’ll talk about what I mean by “belief” some other time, for now: I don’t mean an insistence on a comic book superhero “god” that will act like a celestial vending machine and beat up anyone who doesn’t agree with me).
When I made the decision to really explore Christianity, I had to put a lot of my knee-jerk reactions on hold. Look for the things that open your heart, I told myself, don’t pay attention to the other stuff, for now.
My critical thinking friends might describe this as a willingness to be brainwashed, but it’s not like that. It’s more of a choice to be open and to pay attention to the things that bring out a strong reaction. And it’s only a first step in the process.
The thing is – stuff like religion (or spirituality/relationship with the divine), or love, or family, or identity – are things that usually matter to people on a deep level. As such, when injury happens, rejection or reaction to those things/people/institutions is pretty fierce. I remember a time, back in the early 80s, when I started realizing I was gay; I remember the heartbreak I felt when I thought I could no longer have any kind of spiritual life. This heartbreak hardened into an intense hatred of the religious right and its brand of Christianity.
Of course, over time, I recovered an openness to the divine (or God/the universal flow/Celestial Wonderdog /etc). I realized that the televangelists and so-called moral folk filling those huge mega churches did not own god.
Back to Psalm 4. The first verse goes like this:
Answer me when I call, O God of my right!
You gave me room when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.
Now the first time I read this, I instantly labeled it irritating and skipped over it. But I love Psalm 3, and they are right next to each other, so I’d always finish loving 3 and crash into that ridiculous first line of 4. The psalmist sounds like a stalker girlfriend, or my mom when I was 5: “Answer me when I call!” And: “O God of my right” sounds so…arrogant. Like you have some special right to God1?
I’ve been doing this practice for a while now and a lot of my fellow seminarians (and the professor/pastor types) talk about engaging with the stuff in the Bible (or I’d argue, with anything) that really bugs you because your passionate response can lead to insight or action. This mirrors what one of my spiritual guide-folk once told me: “Pay attention to where your resistance is.”
The psalms, which are essentially poems that were written (or more accurately, collected from oral traditions) across hundreds of years, are a record of the wide range of human emotions. And they are a record of the very human relationship of communities with the divine. When I pray the psalms (by memorizing, meditating on them and speaking them, see lectio divina), I have to use words that I’d rather not use. In some ways, it forces me to recognize emotions of my own I’d rather ignore. And the repetition of the words hammers through my various defenses.
For example, one morning I tackled Psalm 4. Inhale. Answer me when I call, O God of my right. Wince. Exhale. You gave me room when I was in distress. (The translation of this is having room, as in not being trapped or hemmed in). Ok. Inhale. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer. Exhale, huh? Repeat.
For about 45 minutes I sat with this verse. Slowly, I began to identify that my big problem with “Answer me when I call, O God of my right” was tied up in a deep pain of my own. My first thought: who does this guy think he is? Led to: wow, she’s pretty confident that the universe is listening. Led to: That’s pretty audacious, to call on the universe and think it’s your right. Which led to: Well, sure I think people should be able to confidently call on the universe/God to help them in times of need. Which led to: but what about me? Why don’t I think I have the right to call on God (or, the loving universe) and believe she/he/it would welcome and support me? And then I kinda cried. Hate that.
One of the things I’ve always struggled with is my actual right to exist. Sounds silly, but frequently I feel like I shouldn’t be here. Or if I should, I should be really, really quiet, and draw as little attention to myself as I can. There’s often that little voice in my head that hisses: Who do you think you are, anyway? You have nothing important to say. You don’t count. Other people can ask for help, but not you. You don’t deserve help (or love, or happiness, or, or, or…).
I sometimes react to this by thinking: well I don’t need help/love/sense of belonging anyways. But I think this is my reaction to heartbreak: withdraw, don’t ask, try not to need. All of this, of course, works against my having an expansive, loving life. It also keeps me from asking for justice – either for myself, or for other people.
This realization makes me wonder how much of my resistance to the “annoying” psalms is related to my perception of who wrote the poem and where they are speaking from, and to whom. What if they were people like me? Or people who weren’t in power? What does it mean, then?
1Now, there are some people who really don’t like the idea of a “person” god, and I totally get that. When I say God, I really don’t mean Papa (or Mommy) in the fluffy white clouds. My reality is that God/Spirit/Universe/Celestial Wonder Dog/Big Giant Spiritual Reality is way too big for me to wrap my brain around. So, I’m going to just use the word God here.