Inhabiting the Psalms

Inhabiting psalms, acquiring a stance in an intricate story, contributes to spiritual formation in a way that most worldview curriculum does not.

A tree full of fruit
with leaves that are always green.

“Leaves aren’t always green!” exclaims my five-year-old daughter. She looks to me with lips slightly pursed. We’re reading Psalm 1 from the illustrated book Psalms for Young Children, given to us by our former children’s pastor. “If you live God’s way,” I tell her, “you can be a special tree for God that never loses it leaves.” Satisfied, she listens to a musical rendering of Psalm 1 on my smart phone as it lies among the clutter of empty cereal bowls on the table. The book sits nearby open to a picture of a round apple tree above a blue-green stream wending across the page.

Reading, listening, and singing along to a psalm has become a regular practice with my young children. The Psalms were the hymnbook of Jesus’ time, and the Scripture most quoted by him in the Gospels. They were frequently sung or said in the church for generations, but in many Protestant circles, their recitation is no longer a rhythm in believers’ lives, even on Sunday morning.

As a parent, I’m grateful for a church where we recite a psalm each week. What my kids see practiced in our church family, they see supported at home. Churches, including ones with formal liturgy, who have neglected psalm recitation as extraneous are missing an opportunity, particularly in children’s ministry, to shape not only their members’ relationship with God but to nurture a faith-retaining approach to life.

I wonder if as a child I had, to use N.T. Wright’s phrase, “inhabited the psalms” would I have prayed to God more freely, less tongue-tied, more open with my emotions, once in a while angry? The text of Psalms for Young Children mentions that the Psalms help to give expression to our feelings: joy and gratitude, but also anger, disappointment, and fear, the last an emotion with which my daughters most resonate when we talk about being in in dark places.

In inhabiting psalms, in hearing them, saying them and letting their poetic imagery and repetitive phrases sink in and form our imagination, we are acquiring a worldview. Each time my girls and I listen to Psalm 1 and talk about it, the thriving tree metaphor roots itself into their psyche. I like how Wright defines worldview in his little book The Case for Psalms by a heuristic about the story of the world:

  1. Who are we?
  2. Where are we?
  3. What’s wrong?
  4. What’s the solution?
  5. What time is it?

Wright’s questions are inquiries into our primary identity and ways of being. Inhabiting the Psalms is a way of acquiring their answers, to grapple with the issues they represent. Saying the Psalms is a way to bring my own children into the ongoing story of Scripture we have inherited and are a part of.

The Psalms teach us, according to Wright, to embrace the paradox of living in the “now” and the “not yet”—a world where the King has come, lived, suffered, died, and was resurrected and yet friends are still debilitated by cancer and whole nations flee from genocide. Teaching Christian college students, I found myself requesting them to “hold the tensions”—to recognize that good people could sometimes do bad things, that bad people could sometimes do good things, that an artist with a disregard for God could bring you to worship through a depiction of Christ’s suffering, that a philosopher who hates God could say something so true it would haunt your sleep. That this world is messy and messed up almost unexplainably and yet full of God’s glory.

Some of the young people who don’t learn to deal with the paradoxes of our earthly life leave their youth groups and Christian colleges. They take their first job and hang out with non-Christians who seem much kinder and care more about the world than the people causing the infighting in their parents’ church. This inconsistency is enough to dismiss their faith altogether. Inhabiting psalms, acquiring a stance in an intricate story, contributes to spiritual formation in a way that most worldview curriculum does not. In the limitations of that teaching, my children may someday study lists of major assumptions that separate us and them, good and bad. Our practice of engaging with psalms helps me to trust they won’t overlook the complexity of reality.

Walking on a pebbled path in a public garden, I chatted with a graduate from the Christian college where I once taught. She had never sat in my classroom, meeting me through another student. Currently churchless, she looked at me with morose, dark eyes. I told her it was okay that she felt she was holding splinters of faith, that her tree seemed brittle: God wanted to hear her frustration and grief. “I wish,” she said, “that I had had you for a professor.” A compliment to me, I know, but what I wish is that her past church had welcomed her into a process of spiritual formation that engaged the untidiness of reality by crying out to God about it.

I want my children to hope in a God who’s come and left but not completely, who’s here but not fully. To believe He’s good despite the justice we’ve prayed for not occurring. My daughters will mature and make homes, they will experience distance from God. They will stand in the world’s ravaging blasts and nurturing rains. The Psalms’ images and words, including ones Jesus spoke, will unfurl within them.

Heather Walker Peterson

Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.

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