Growing with the Psalms

I was stymied at first. When preschool age, my kids had responded well to Marie-Helene Delval’s brief texts and Arno’s colorful illustrations in Psalms for Young Children. They danced afterwards to a corresponding song played on my smartphone. I had written about that experience, and why I spend time with my kids in the Psalms, previously for the Pray Channel.

Since then, my kids have reached first and second grade. I thought they would be ready for longer texts read from scripture. Instead, they lost attention quickly, and when I played the psalm on my phone, they leaned over and touched pause after one verse, saying, “It’s long enough, Mom.” They were unable to answer most questions I asked afterwards.

It was my husband who suggested that I make psalm reading responsive—every few verses we would have the kids respond with a spoken refrain. After a little digging, I recognized that we had joined a great tradition, begun with the Psalms themselves. In Psalm 136, a Hebrew congregation must have answered back with “His mercy endures forever.” When we respond in speaking, we call it a litany.  If the psalm is sung, it is a responsorial psalm. If you’ve ever sung the Kyrie eleison—Lord, have mercy—you’ve participated in this kind of response.

Occasionally, I choose a portion of a verse as a refrain. Bible translators have divided each psalm into sections (or strophes) based on theme or switch in perspective. You can identify these sections by the slightly extra white space between the lines in your Bible. After each section, we say the refrain together.

However, I know there are others who have studied the Psalms more in-depth, who have already chosen refrains that act as an emphasis based on their theological, pastoral, or liturgical experience. Another benefit of these published responsorial psalms is that these experts have selected portions of a longer psalm rather than its entirety. Reading these abbreviated psalms deter little bodies from wiggling out of control.

The book containing responsorial psalms that I like best is Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship co-published with Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. It contains much more than a family would need, such as musical settings for multiple versions of the Psalms, but many of the extras are interesting if not helpful, including services of morning, noon, evening, and night prayer at the end. Another resource, Catholic rather than Protestant, is the website Corpus Christi Watershed. Many resources with responsorial psalms have an R indicated to the right when it is time to say the refrain.

Below is a sample of what my family does when we have a season of reading the Psalms for our evening prayer. We use a refrain by Isaac Watts, and I chose the psalm text from the Christian Standard Version.

Reader: Lord, open our lips.

Family: And our mouth shall proclaim your praise.

(This is a traditional call and response taken from Psalm 51:16.)

Reader:  The refrain, we’re going to say together today is “I love the Lord, who heard my cry.” Let’s practice that together.

All: I love the Lord, who heard my cry.

Reader: (Psalm 116: 1-9, 12-19)

1I love the Lord, because he has heard
     my voice and my supplications.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
     therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
The snares of death encompassed me;
    the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
     I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
     “O Lord, I pray, save my life!”

Reader: We say together:

Family: I love the Lord, who heard my cry.

Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
     our God is merciful.
The Lord protects the simple;
     when I was brought low, he saved me.
Return, O my soul, to your rest,
     for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.

For you have delivered my soul from death,
     my eyes from tears,
     my feet from stumbling.
I walk before the Lord
     in the land of the living.

Reader: We say together:

Family: I love the Lord, who heard my cry.

12 What shall I return to the Lord
     for all his bounty to me?
13 I will lift up the cup of salvation
     and call on the name of the Lord,
14 I will pay my vows to the Lord
     in the presence of all his people.

Reader: We say together:

Family: I love the Lord, who heard my cry.

15 Precious in the sight of the Lord
     is the death of his faithful ones.
16 O Lord, I am your servant;
     I am your servant, the child of your serving girl.
     You have loosed my bonds.
17 I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice
     and call on the name of the Lord.
18 I will pay my vows to the Lord
     in the presence of all his people,
19 in the courts of the house of the Lord,
     in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord!

Reader: We say together:

Family: I love the Lord, who heard my cry.

Family: Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.

(A form of this doxology, called the Gloria Patri, has been sung or said along with a psalm since the fourth century. It is a way of affirming the doctrine of the Trinity and God’s eternal nature.)

Reader: Was there anything you didn’t understand? What words or word pictures stood out to you? How does this psalm point to Jesus or our need for Jesus? (Children answer.)

(After the children answer, we often pray the Lord’s Prayer together, and then we bring up needs of others to pray for. For this psalm, when I asked is there someone we can pray for whom God needs to hear from, our six-year-old prayed that a relative who didn’t know Jesus would cry out to him.)

Reader: Lord, hear our prayer.

Family: And let our cry come to you.

(This ending call and response is taken from Psalm 102:1a.)

We read the Psalms this year during the season of Epiphany, and I hope to return to them as morning prayers when my academic schedule gives me more time to be with my family in the early portion of the day. You may want to practice this approach to the Psalms for Lent and Easter, or during Ordinary Time this summer.



Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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