Soon the lush greens in our forests will change into bright yellows and deep reds before it all disappears. Sometimes, as the adage goes, it’s beautiful to watch the dead things fall. But that’s not always the case. There are years when the leaves disappear from the trees seemingly overnight. The temperature drops too low, and if it’s accompanied by strong winds, then that’s that. There are no colors. There’s luxuriant life and then, a skeleton. No one is prepared for what follows—the grey skies and lingering emptiness; the numb toes and cold bed sheets. How could you be? We all struggle to reorient to new seasons and different forms of life.
Life, as Walter Brueggemann says, moves from orientation, into disorientation, and then back into reorientation. There are longer days and shorter nights, as there is joy and lament. There is cold and warmth, as there is anger and thanksgiving. There is freezing rain, which is obviously a metaphor for cursing. We teach our bodies how to cope with new seasons at a very young age. There’s appropriate clothing like plaid and winter coats or miniskirts and swimming suits. But what about our inner life? When summer fades into fall and then drops deeper into winter, what shall we wear?
For thousands of years the Judeo-Christian tradition has relied on Psalms as a guide through the changing of times. These are our “school for prayer” and a catechesis in learning to talk to God. Or maybe, they're also a type of clothing for our inner life. When we put on the ancient words we discover garments for a new season, a new way of being.
The Psalms are the heart of the Bible both in location and purpose; they pump blood into the Scriptures as they also enliven our worship and life together. John Calvin called them “An Anatomy of All the Parts of the Soul,” where our deepest yearnings find a voice and a new harmony. They give form to our spiritual lives and grant us permission to bring our feelings to God no matter what joy or rage lingers in our hearts. What do you say when you hold a new born baby? How about this: “you knit us together in our mother's womb. I praise you because we are fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139). Regrets take shape and cursing is given permission. Say your worst; God has already heard it and the church has canonized it. With confessional Psalms, our hearts are aired out like an open house.
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
Perhaps this is why families often request Psalms to be read at funerals. They are poems and songs, which means that they heal in a way that theology lectures can’t. The raw emotion counteracts the platitudes about grandma singing with a choir of angels and daddy playing golf with Moses. Psalm 23 (‘The Lord is my Shepherd) is requested most often—a top of the Billboard Charts and time-tested word of comfort. But there’s another that is particularly common in the mountains: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Imagine reading that in a cemetery settled in the middle of a valley while death’s claustrophobia overwhelms as in Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. It's a desperate plea for healing to the One who promises it.
But the poem is also a close friend. When the seasons change, certain Psalms sit with us in the middle of the night, as did Job’s friends, and hold our hands through the pain.
There’s something cathartic about being placed in a long tradition as we speak the same healing words as many others have before us and even more will long after we’re gone. They first belonged to David or Solomon and the post-exilic community who wrote them out of their heartache and struggle. These are the prayers Jesus prayed—the ones he may have memorized in Sabbath school or getting tucked in at night by Mary and Joseph. They were later the same words he prayed while hanging on the cross when all else scattered. And since they are Jesus’ prayers, they are God's thanksgiving for beauty and lament for a world broken.
Jesus continues to pray these Psalms through us, his body, as we continue to pray them through him. And so the Psalms put us in harmony with one another—whether that’s within a congregation or across the globe. If a certain Psalm is not your prayer, maybe it is somebody else’s. You may not be currently find yourself in the pit of despair, but certainly someone in the world is at the end of his tether. We may not be hungry, but someone is hungry because of our apathy. What would it be like to read a cursing Psalm from the point of view of a starving child?
They gave me also gall for my food; And in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
Let their table before them become a snare; And when they are in peace, [let it become] a trap.
Let their eyes be darkened, so that they cannot see; And make their loins continually to shake.
I read these words because it’s not just my prayer, but ours. They are words to pray with someone else’s lips and in another’s grief. It's a prayer that I might repent and turn from all the selfish ways of living. One day the reverse might be true. There could be someone—a friend, a brother or sister, a stranger—who is praying a Psalm and it’s not for her own sake, but mine, because the mouth of Jesus is continually praying for its body.
If we are to get through the changing of seasons, we'll do it with the help of one another.
A Lutheran theologian Martin Marty read through the Psalms with his wife during her struggle with cancer. The Psalms became their respite every night when she woke up to take her nausea medicine and waited to fall back asleep. One night Martin’s wife caught him skipping from Psalm 87 to 91. Some have called Psalm 88 the one with no hope, where ‘darkness is my only companion.’
"Why did you skip that psalm?" his wife demanded.
Marty told her he wasn't sure she could take Psalm 88 that night.
"Go back. Read it," she said.
"If I don't deal with the darkness, the others won't shine out."
The beauty of the Psalms is that most of them end in praise. Even the gravest laments and raging curses somehow bend back to God's goodness and faithfulness. And that's the promise of the Psalms and the pattern for our lives. We will move from dark into light if the Psalms are any consolation. In fact, hope is just one chapter away—or even better, a comma. Life will be redeemed, and though it will never look and feel exactly the same as a previous season, there is still the promise of reorientation.
Or maybe it's better to put it this way: there's always hope for a final season. And that's the season of resurrection.