Jul 13



Stories invite us to belong.

Growing up we hear the big stories of a country or people.  Americans learn about George Washington, the young boy chopping down the cherry tree and the brave general leading his troops across the Delaware River.  Brits hear of the appetites of King Henry the Eighth and the courage of Sir Winston Churchill.  Chinese recount majestic and enchanting tales of the Ming dynasty.  So we learn our people are truth-tellers, full of dogged perseverance, or graced with ageless wisdom.

We also learn and live smaller stories– the tale of a family we love, a child we raise, or a pizza place we share with friend.  These personally-sized stories help us find our voice and make sense of who we are.

This website offers a place to tell and hear stories about the biblical psalms.  Who would expect a diverse collection of people like Bono and Kanye West, Leonard Bernstein and Abraham Lincoln, Bob Marley and Winston Churchill, or Desmund Tutu and Natan Sharansky would have so much in common?  Generations of spiritual insiders and outsiders, monks and pilgrims, people from every continent have felt the same way.  Tying our story to these ageless poems we find we belong, becoming “insiders” in a way we didn’t think possible.

Tell your story and see what happens inside you.  (share your own story).

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Not everyone likes tattoos.  Teresa Kaepernick knows that too well.  She was more enthused than anyone when her son Colin became the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.  She knew that every NFL quarterback gets criticism.  But she never guessed his tattoos would be a cause.  She, like Colin, was stunned to hear people like David Whitley of AOL Fanhouse who wrote, “The NFL quarterback is the ultimate position of influence and responsibility. He is the CEO of a high-profile organization, and you don’t want your CEO to look like he just got paroled.”

Criticism for an interception?  They expected that.  But for having tattoos?  Teresa was stunned. Maybe that’s because Colin asked she and her husband Rick for their ideas when choosing a Bible passage to get inked. As a result of their conversation, one of Colin’s biceps read: “Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.”  Words chosen from Psalm 27:3.  The other arm reads, “You armed me with strength for battle; you humbled my adversaries before me.”  (Psalm 18:39)

The tattoos motivate him.  They fuel Colin’s desire to push back the critics who repeatedly told him, “You’re not athletic enough.”  “Your arm is not strong enough.”  “You are too skinny.”  “You are not competitive enough, throwing mechanics aren’t the way they should be.”  So he chose psalms.  Psalms overflowing with passion and energy.

The now-famous artwork on his arms, his “tapestries of tattoos,” are the work of tattoo artist, Nes Andrion of Reno, Nevada who connected Colin’s bicep messages with a tattoo across his chest that reads, “Against All Odds.” Colin says, “I had so many people saying I wasn’t going to be successful.”  His tattoo art stirs him, a way to “prove those people wrong. Teresa summarizes it another way, his tattoos, she says, ” are about asking God to kick somebody’s butt.”

Now that the 49ers are Super Bowl bound, Colin has never been more popular.  And recently he trademarked his celebrative “Kaepernicking”—his habit of kissing his biceps after scoring a touchdown.  Who knows if whether or not Kaepernicking will catch on, but here’s hoping the psalms do.

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Newtown Tragedy

What do you say when there are no words to say?

In the face of a tragedy, clichés melt away. Or should. I’ve been struck by how many wise people have wisely said the right response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School is silence. Pastor and author Eugene Peterson recommended such silence in an NPR interview. Silence is just right.

But what do you say when you need to say something? When you must speak, what words do you use? What do you say at a public memorial service?

President Obama began his remarks by quoting from 2 Corinthians 4, “To all the families, first responders, to the community of Newtown, clergy, guests, scripture tells us, “Do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly, we are being renewed day by day. For light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all, so we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven not built by human hands.”

He graciously took on the role of “mourner in chief”—a role that, at the interfaith memorial service, required words. And for that, he turned to time tested words from St. Paul and Jesus, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”

Both sets of words are beautifully chosen. They are words of faith; words that point toward grace in the face of horror.

Bloggers on websites for atheists asked that they also be remembered in a nation’s grieving, and with religious-free words. Fair enough. But for many, in a time like this, labels like “catholic” and “protestant,” “religious” and “non-religious,” “republican” and “democrat” fade away. Instead, we are all a kind of parent of the deceased. We are, in a way, united in our grief, and our longing for healing. So it was no surprise, that other participants in Newtown’s interfaith service turned to the psalms. Rabbi Shaul of Congregation Adath Israel read Psalm 46. “God is our refuge and our strength, an ever present help in trouble…” Rev. Kathleen E. Adams-Shepard, rector of Trinity Episcopal, read from Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want…”

Silence is wise. So very wise. Psalm 62 begins, “My soul waits in silence for God alone…” But when the time comes to speak, the time-tested words of the psalms give direction. We dare speak their words. Not because we are wise, or because we need a religious cliché, or because we think “we have something to say.” But because, as generations have known, the psalms are God’s own words. They voice divinely guided silence, and lament, and longing, and hope.
This is the program for the interfaith service:

*Welcome by Matthew Crebbin, senior minister of the Newtown Congregational Church.

*Psalm 46 by Rabbi Shaul Praver of Congregation Adath Israel.

*Prayer for those we lost by Rev. Mel Kawakami, senior minister of Newtown United Methodist.

*Psalm 23 by the Rev. Kathleen E. Adams-Shepard, rector of Trinity Episcopal.

*Prayer for the children by the Rev. Jim Solomon, pastor of the New Hope Community Church.

*Reading of the Koran and a prayer by Jason Graves and Muadh Bhavnagarwala of the Al Hedaya Islamic Center.

*Prayers for the emergency responders by the Rev. Jane Sibley, minister at Newtown United Methodist.

*Reading and a prayer from the Baha’i tradition by Dr. John Woodall, leader of Baha’i Faith Community.

*Prayer for counselors and caregivers by the Rev. Leo McIlrath, chaplain at the Lutheran Home of Southbury.

*Scripture: Romans 8 by the Rev. Pastor Jack Tanner, minister and elder of the Newtown Christian Church.

*First Selectwoman Patricia Llodra

*Conn. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy

*President Barack Obama

*Prayer for our community by the Rev. Msgr Robert Weiss, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church.

*Blessing by the Rev. Rob Mossis, vicar of Christ the King Lutheran Church

*Closing music by Fiona Smith Sutherland.

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In some regions, early in the history of Christianity, candidates chanted Psalm 42 while proceeding to the baptistery for baptism. The practice was based on the psalm’s initial image, the iconography of deer coming to drink at flowing streams. The idea, of course, is to connect the desire of the candidates to drink from, even more to “bathe in,” the water of life.

In his commentary on psalm 42, Augustine says that surely the psalm urges every believer to run like a deer to the fountain of understanding. But he went on to describe how the psalm has special meaning for those being baptized. As a person walks to a baptism font, they chanted this text “to express their longing for the fountain that remits sins in the same way that the deer longs for springs of water.” That is the reason, Augustine says, “we traditionally sing this psalm, to arouse in them a longing for the fountain of forgiveness of their sins, like the deer longs for the springs of water.”

The Gelasian Sacramentary, written between the sixth and the eighth centuries, instructs that candidates to sing Psalm 42 on their way to the font during the Easter vigil. It adds this prayer:

Almighty and ever-living God, look with favor on the devotion of your people at their second birth, who are like the deer drawn to the fountain of water, grant that in baptism their thirst for faith my sanctify their souls and bodies.

Adapted from Robin M. Jensen, Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 212.

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Mother Teresa’s inner battle echoes words from Psalm 22

Adapted from By David Van Biema, Religion News Service…

“On Sept. 5, 1997, the world mourned when Mother Teresa, whose work with the poorest of the poor made her a global icon, died of a heart ailment at age 87. Exactly 10 years later, the world did a double take, when a volume of Teresa’s private letters revealed that the tireless, smiling nun spent the last 39 years of her life in internal agony. Jesus, she wrote, no longer seemed present to her, in prayer or even in the Eucharist. In letter after tormented letter she described an unrelenting spiritual “dryness,” a “torturing pain.” Her smile was “a big cloak” of deception. She admitted at one point to doubting God’s existence. Eventually she apparently became more reconciled to her condition; but as far as we know, she died with it.

The news was disorienting. The late Christopher Hitchens, Teresa’s constant critic, claimed it proved she was a “confused old lady who . . . for all practical purposes had ceased to believe.” Her Catholic Church remained unperturbed: Pope John Paul II had already alluded to her “inner darkness” as a “test” she had aced. Yet for many, the question remained: How, short of hypocrisy or a psychotic break, could such alienation coexist with such obvious devotion?”

The paradox still shocks me, but lately I’ve encountered the same starkly binary voice—in a set of 3,000-year-old poems. Written in around 1000 B.C., the 150 prayers in the Book of Psalms helped shape both Judaism and Christianity, are still memorized by some congregations, and live on in liturgy, hymnody and private prayer. Some are pure jubilation—the word “hallelujah” originated in psalms. But just as many—the “psalms of complaint”—sound like . . . well, like the private Mother Teresa.

Here are Teresa’s words, edited down from three letters:
Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The child of Your love—and now become as the most hated one.
I call, I cling, I want—and there is no One to answer. Darkness surrounds me on all sides. If there be no God—there can be no soul—if there is no soul then Jesus—You also are not true—Heaven, what emptiness. I am afraid to write all those terrible things—they must hurt You.
Yet, deep down somewhere in my heart that longing for God keeps breaking through the darkness. Love in me for God grows more real—I find myself telling Jesus unconsciously the most strange tokens of love. Let Him do to me whatever He wants. If my darkness is light to some soul, I am perfectly happy.

And here are key lines from Psalm 22:

The crisis of faith revealed in some of Mother Teresa’s
writings—published after her death—is similar to that described by King David in Psalm 22,
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but find no rest.
I am a worm, and not human. A company of evildoers encircles me. All who see me mock at me; “Commit your cause to the Lord; let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”
Yet since my mother bore me you have been my God. And I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn.

The psalms of complaint average about 80 percent lament, and 20 percent celebration—with no transition. Their extreme inbuilt tension has driven some scholars to suggest that the… F. Scott Fitzgerald defined a “first-rate intelligence” as the ability to maintain two opposing ideas simultaneously. Søren Kierkegaard suggested that religious belief might be possible only by a “leap to faith.” Both the Psalmist and Teresa seem to have combined Fitzgerald and Kierkegaard, deep hurt somehow cohabiting with vertiginous faith.
It’s a profoundly un-modern temperament; and predictably, the complaints receive less play in churches and synagogues than happier psalms. But they are still prayed by desperate people in dire straits—people like Jesus, who quoted Psalm 22’s first, anguished words from the cross.
You can dismiss them as unsolvable puzzles. But only if you feel that what is unsolvable must be dismissed. Paid heed, their internal friction mesmerizes. They are more compelling to me than the psalms of thanksgiving, praise or wisdom.

Just as the 2007 Mother Teresa is more compelling than the 1997 model. A woman who does great works for God is a paragon. One who does them while overcome with loneliness and doubt is a fascination. Like the complaints, she may be less easily fathomed than the smiley Mother—but once considered, she is harder to forget.

David Van Biema is author of Mother Teresa: The Life and Works of a Modern Saint, being reissued by Time Books, is working on a book about the Psalms for Simon & Schuster.

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The relentless realism of the psalms is not depressing in the way that television news can be, although many of the same events are reported: massacres, injustices to those who have no one to defend them, people tried in public by malicious tongues. As a book of praises, meant to be sung, the Psalter contains a hope that “human interest” stories tacked on to the end of a news broadcast cannot provide. The psalms mirror our world but do not allow us to become voyeurs. In a nation unwilling to look at is own violence, they force us to recognize our part in it. They make us reexamine our values.

Kathleen Norris
The Cloister Walk

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A friend, a terrific pastor and church planter in California wrote out of frustration…

“Woe to me that I dwell in Meshech, that I live among the tents of Kedar!” laments the Psalmist (Psalm 120).

According to the commentaries, Meshech and Kedar are generic stand-ins for bad places to live. The Psalmist explains why living there is so bad: “Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. I am a man of peace; but when I speak, they are for war.” His values, his desires, his life purpose are vastly different – opposite, in fact – from the residents of the country he finds himself in. He just doesn’t fit in. He wants shalom, they want war. He wants well-being, they want violence. It may sound melodramatic, but I found that this Psalm perfectly captured my feelings about the place where I live. The community is not interested in community, neighbors are not interested in neighborliness, spiritually wandering people are not interested in finding a home. So why am I trying so hard? Have I been a fool this whole time, working so hard for something that people don’t even care about? That thought suddenly pierced me.

A day later I thought of the prophet Ezekiel, whom God sent with these words, “I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me.” God describes the people as “stubborn,” “hardened”, and “obstinate,” but assures Ezekiel, “I will make you as unyielding and hardened as they are. I will make your forehead like the hardest stone, harder than flint.” Sometimes being hardheaded is exactly what God wants. We should be hardheaded about seeking peace, doing good, sharing the gospel, building community.

I’m honestly not sure if I need to continue on being hardheaded about these things here, or if it’s time to shake the dust off my feet and move on to somewhere more interested.

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Delegates came streaming in. Some walked, some road motorcycles, many came as part of entire congregations all bused together. Some came escorted by police convoys. Others had flown from other continents, representing more than 100 countries.
The thousands found their way in to Independence Square in Accra, Ghana’s capital, inscribed with the words “Freedom and Justice, AD 1957.” Seated under canopies to provide shade from 2004’s version of the sub Saharan heat, what might possibly bring such a diverse gathering together?
Then the singing began. Choirs from congregations all over Africa started the procession. With overflowing and contagious joy they sang their borrowed song. First sung in England, it was then shipped to Africa and North America and other countries colonized by the British Empire. But now a moving, singing, elegant choir of Africans sang it as their own. And so it was. One delegate remembers being so overcome by the sight and sound, she could barely sing. Categories of “us” and “them” melted away she remembers, in the lyrics of the world’s oldest song. Moses ancient prayer known as Psalm 90 was once again brought to life in the words of Isaac Watts;
O God our help in ages past
Our hope for years to come
Our shelter from the story blast
And our eternal home.
It was the start to the 2004 meeting of the World Council of Reformed Churches. A start no delegate would ever forget.

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Bible commentator and scholar Bruce Waltke has spent his life loving and explaining the Old Testament. One day, after hearing Bruce speak, a Viet Nam veteran sent him this letter:

“In one of the battles I fought in Viet Nam there were dead and wounded all around me. Having gone for three days without sleep my ability to make wise decisions was at a dangerously low level. At 3:00 A.M. I found a hole in a jungle base, virtually under a battery of canons. The heat of the jungle night combined with that of the canons, which fired volleys about every twenty second, was insufferable. Even in the stench of the gun-powder, the mosquitoes relentlessly pursed their blood thirst duty. As I lay there, this verse of Scripture came to me as audibly as any human voice:
‘I will lie down in peace and I will sleep;
for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.’

I think I had the best two hours sleep in my entire life.

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In his powerfully helpful book Praying the Psalms (50) Walter Brueggemann reminds us that Jews cannot pray very long without meditating on the Torah. Pointing to Psalms 1, 19, and 119 as examples he says the Torah is at the very center of Jewish spirituality. Such psalm-based, Torah inspired spirituality delivers us from the excessive romanticism and subjectivism Jesus followers often find so tempting—and then turn into clichés.
Jewish preoccupation with the Torah, says Brueggemann, is “hard-nosed realism about the norms of our life, the public character of true religion.” It reminds us that the original way to know God is through obedience. Psalm-like celebrations of the Torah give us not only commands but assurance, not only rules but a bulwark against phoniness and temptation. Reality, such psalms promise, is structured in ways that will not be defeated. Life has a moral coherence that we can rely on. Thank God.

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Walter Brueggemann looks like he walked right out of the psalms. White hair. Wise face. Intelligent, piercing eyes. Quick laugh. Fearless and kind conversation. After reading his insightful and profound work on the psalms–books like “The Psalms and the Life of Faith” and “The Message of the Psalms” it was a rare treat to see him in action at the Calvin Symposium on Christian Worship. Walter’s insights on living and preaching the psalms were inspiring. You can hear him at this link http://worship.calvin.edu/news-events/news/symposium-2012-comes-to-a-close.  If ever you wonder, “What will happen to me if I spend a lifetime praying and living the psalms?” you can find your answer in this alive and profound man. He is a picture of what Irenaeus meant when he said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

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