Prayers for All Orientations – Psalm 30
A common theme in mythology, in the stories that we tell to explain and expound upon life, has revolved around the adages, “appearances can be deceiving” and “things are not always what they seem.”
This concept is present in stories where an ordinary man or woman turns out to be royalty as in “The Prince and the Pauper” or divinity as in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25. It is found in stories where the role of protagonist and antagonist are subverted or at least blurred, such as Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan and Flannery O’Connor’s short stories.
And it is also the driving force in stories with a surprise ending or the postulation of an alternate reality wherein that which was accepted and unquestioned, that which was thought to be “normal” and “obvious” is subverted and dismantled and a new understanding of reality must be constructed. This is found in older works such as O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” and many of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as in more recent works such as “The Matrix,” “Fight Club” and the films of M. Night Shyamalan.
What is happening in these stories (and myriad others like them) is that the audience’s presumption, expectation, understanding and sometimes their entire world-view is challenged, stretched and even destroyed. This leads the reader (or viewer, as the case may be) into a period of unsettledness and uncertainty and requires a new set of expectations, a new understanding and sometimes a new world-view to be erected upon the ruins of the old.
This experience of moving from a settled, familiar state to an unsettled, unfamiliar state and then to a newly settled and newly familiar state is an inevitable part of life. It happens in small ways every single day, in significant ways more often than we imagine, and in life-altering ways at least a couples times in each of our lives.
Acutely aware of the dynamic, developmental nature of existence, the ancient philosopher Heraclitus said that being alive was like stepping into a river or flowing stream. You step into the same river each day and yet you do not, because life, like a river, flows, moves and changes. It is an ever-changing constant, you might say. You can step into the same river but it is not the same river you stepped in before, because “everything changes and nothing remains still.” And life, Heraclitus suggested, is just like that.
It seems to me that what we find expressed in stories built upon the conception that “appearances can be deceiving” and that “things are not always what they seem” is that life and our understanding thereof is not a static, unchanging reality. Life and our grasp thereof is always changing and we with it.
We are changeable and malleable creatures. We grow, develop, adapt, and evolve. We move from one understanding into another through a sometimes difficult and always disorienting process. We, like a river, are the same people and yet we are not, because each new moment affects us, changes us, and shapes us. With each new experience our old orientation, our old manner of thinking and seeing and being becomes disoriented and dismantled and a new orientation, a new way of thinking and seeing and being emerges.
This never-ending movement from one understanding to another, one state to another, one worldview to another, one naïveté to another is probably what the apostle Paul was talking about when he said that when he was a child he spoke, thought and reasoned like a child, but when he grew up he left behind childish ways (1 Cor 13.11). And the truth is, we are (or at least ought to be) forever leaving childish, narrow-minded, uninformed ways and thoughts and attitudes and ideologies and theologies behind us. We ought to be always growing up into better, more compassionate versions of ourselves.
Drawing upon the evolving, ever-changing nature of life, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has suggested that the psalms can be understood within this framework of development. He offers one way (among many) to categorize the psalms by labeling them according to three experiences or orientations.
There are psalms of orientation about times when life and our understanding thereof is settled and certain). There are psalms of disorientation about times when life and our understanding thereof is unsettled and uncertain. And there are psalms of new orientation about times when life and our understanding thereof are re-settled and “re-certained,” if you will. Some psalms fit neatly into one of these three categories, while many psalms exhibit traits of all three by testifying to a movement from settled life to unsettled life to re-settled life.
Since the psalms reflect the moments and the movements we all experience, they can serve as models for our prayers, and they can speak a word to us and for us in all seasons of life even when we cannot find the words ourselves.
Our first scripture readings for this morning provide models for each of these orientations.
Psalm 16 is a psalm of orientation, giving thanks for a well-ordered and abundant life. This is a psalm, a song, a prayer for those whose present reality is settled and certain, who find meaning and fulfillment in their lives, who find themselves high and lifted up, and understand the things that happen to them. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places, the psalmist rejoices.
Psalm 22 is a psalm of disorientation, voicing confusion and suffering because of a disordered and insufficient life. This is a psalm, a song, a prayer for those whose present reality is unsettled and uncertain, who cannot find meaning and fulfillment in their lives, who find themselves down and out, and who cannot understand the things that happen to them. So the psalm writer cries out, My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?
Finally, Psalm 40 is a psalm of new orientation, offering thanks for a newly ordered and resurrected life. This is a psalm, a song, a prayer for those whose present reality has been re-settled and “re-certained,” who have found new meaning and new fulfillment in their lives, who have found themselves lifted up and resurrected from the depths and darkness, and who feel that they have a new, more informed understanding of the things that happened to them. I waited patiently, exclaims the psalmist, and God heard my cry, drew me up from the desolate Pit and set my feet on solid ground.
These are three of many psalms that provide paradigms or patterns for us in voicing our prayers to God in whatever situation we find ourselves. In times of order, we can turn to psalms of praise and thanksgiving; in times of disorder to psalms of confusion and bewilderment; and in times of new order to psalms of rescue and resurrection. The great diversity of the psalms allows us to find solidarity and companionship with those who have journey through similar situations and to find models for prayer in any and all circumstances.
When we turn to our second reading, Psalm 30, we find a psalm, a song, a prayer that journeys through all three stages and gives voice to that experience.
The psalmist frames or brackets his entire song with praise and thanksgiving for the redemption, the resurrection, the reorientation that has taken place. And so psalm begins with praise as a result of rescue and healing:
I will praise you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up…
I cried for help and you have healed me…
You brought me up from Sheol, you restored me to life…
So I will sing praises and give thanks to God…
Whose anger is fleeting and whose favor is everlasting…
Weeping is short-lived and joy follows…
In the opening five verses we read about the psalmist being rescued and raised up from difficult and desperate circumstances. But then, in verse 6, the psalmist shifts from the ending (the rescue) back to the very beginning (the settled and certain period of the psalmist’s old orientation that fell apart and led him to cry out for rescue and restoration).
I said in my prosperity, my comfort, my settledness, my certainty “I shall never be moved!”
Verse 6 portrays a person in a state of tranquility, in a period when everything is settled. Whether it was a place of financial, ideological, emotional, physical, relational or theological stability, the psalmist recalls a time when the foundations were sure and trustworthy, when life and his understanding thereof was manageable and comprehensible, when everything was in its place and nothing was murky or muddled or messy.
But then, in verse 7, we read about the terrifying transition from the familiar to the unfamiliar, the certain to the uncertain, the oriented to the disoriented.
By your favor, O LORD, I felt established like a strong mountain, immovable and unchanging, sure and certain, safe and secure. But then your face seemed hidden and I was dismayed.
The psalmist’s security and safety that made him feel like a strong mountain suddenly vanished along with the sense of God’s presence. His confidence faded and his future was unsure. All that he had come to expect and take for granted was suddenly gone. His life had fallen apart, and his understanding of life had been shattered.
What caused his world to fall apart, what tore apart his framework for understanding life, what took away his certainty and comfort is not disclosed in the text. Verses 8-10 only reveal that it was terrifying and torturous experience. It was like facing death, confronting the end of all that is known and understood and certain, and confronting the beginning of all that is unknown and unstudied and unsure.
Whatever the circumstances, it was in the depths of dismay, disillusionment and disorientation that the psalmist cried out to God for help, for rescue, for deliverance, for reorientation, for resurrection:
To you, O LORD, I cried out for help, asking:
What good can come from my death, my demise?
What good can come from dwelling in the Pit, in the unknown abyss?
Will the dust offer praise and thanksgiving?
Hear me, O LORD! Be gracious to me and help me!
In the darkness of despair the psalmist cried out for a light. And even though the next verse immediately follows, we out to let these questions and this cry of help linger and hang in the air before we proceed, for lingering questions and unanswered cries for resurrection is what we experience in life.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, without a formal transition and without any explanation of how it happened—which reveals the unexpected, perhaps even inexplicable nature of the healing, the redemption, the resurrection—the psalm ends where it began, with praise and thanksgiving for deliverance into new life and new orientation:
You, O LORD, have turned my mourning into dancing…
My soul cannot help but offer praise forever and ever…
The details given throughout the psalm are sparse, and perhaps this is the beauty of the psalm and why the psalm still has meaning and can still offer help and hope to us today.
Though our situation may not be that of the psalmist, we can relate to the anguish of life becoming disoriented, of life coming unglued at the seams, of ideological or financial or relational or theological or vocational of physical well-being and settledness falling apart.
We can relate to the desperation, confusion and anguish that results and out of which we can only cry out for help and hope.
And hopefully we can relate to the elation and exuberant praise that springs forth when our lives are somehow put back together by some great and mysterious grace—not just like they were before, but put back together none the less—on the third day, or some other and equally unexpected time.
So here is the good, glad news. The psalms can and should give us comfort that we are not alone in our experiences, because the psalms speak to the many and varied experiences of life. Therefore, they can and should help us formulate prayers in all situations and orientations, and they can and should encourage us to give voice to our unfiltered and unfettered feelings whatever our circumstances may be.
There are psalms for all orientations of life that can aid us expressing what we might not be able find the strength or courage or words to say on our own, and for this help and this hope we can say, “thanks be to God!” AMEN.