Much Christian piety and spirituality is romantic and unreal in its positiveness. As children of the Enlightenment, we have censored and selected around the voice of darkness and disorientation, seeking to go from strength to strength, from victory to victory. But such a way not only ignores the Psalms; it is a lie in terms of our experience. Brevard S. Childs is no doubt right in seeing that the Psalms as a canonical book is finally an act of hope. But the hope is rooted precisely in the midst of loss and darkness, where God is surprisingly present. The Jewish reality of exile, the Christian confession of crucifixion and cross, the honest recognition that there is an untamed darkness in our life that must be embraced — all of that is fundamental to the gift of new life.
– Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms, p. xii
In his work on the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann has identified a pattern that groups the psalms roughly into three kinds: psalms of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation. This scheme has personal and pastoral as well as analytical value, for as the scholar says, “the flow of human life characteristically is located either in the experience of one of these settings or is in movement from one to the other.”
Psalms of orientation speak of and to those seasons of life when we enjoy a sense of well being and stability. In these times we praise the God of creation, who bestows his good favor upon us in the regular cycles of nature. We give thanks for the beneficence of the God of providence, from whose hand we welcome sunshine and rain, as well as his good gifts of food, health, human fellowship, family, and stable economic and political circumstances.
Psalms of disorientation evoke those times in life when the bottom falls out. The ground beneath our feet, once firm, starts shaking and we lose our bearings. Illness and other forms of personal distress, financial problems, relational conflicts, “wars and rumors of war,” and “fightings without and fears within” make it seem as though God has abandoned us, or at least hidden himself for awhile. We hurt. We question. We doubt. We may despair even of life itself. We are lost!
Psalms of new orientation celebrate those times when God breaks through our darkness with a new burst of light. Weeping has worn out our night, but joy awakens us at dawn. As on Christmas morning, we stumble downstairs and behold surprising stacks of new gifts under the tree with our names on them. Our jaws drop at the generous display of grace that appeared overnight while we were asleep to the possibilities of God. Like the birth of a Baby, the sight of the Master walking on water in the midst of the storm, the appearance of One raised from the dead standing in our midst, we can only squeal and gape wide-eyed with childlike wonder and praise.
Furthermore, Brueggemann asserts that the Psalms portray these seasons of life, these contexts of faith, in a dynamic manner. That is, we are always moving from one state to the other. The two primary movements involve:
- going from the state of settled orientation into a season of disorientation, and
- moving from distorientation into a new orientation by God’s gracious intervention.
These movements provide the drama which characterizes the Psalms and our lives. They are also easily seen in the great events of Scripture.
- The story of Israel moves through regular cycles of blessing, exile, and restoration.
- The story of Jesus moves from glory at his Father’s side to self-emptying that culminates in death on a cross, to resurrection and exaltation (Phil 2:5-11).
- This is all portrayed in the sacramental act that marks us as Christians — graced with the gift of life we die, buried with Christ in baptism into death, raised to walk in newness of life.
This pattern also explains the movements of the Church Year in its cruciform shape. At this time of year, we participate in Advent activities, which invite us to experience the depths of our disorientation because of sin and brokenness. Advent also calls us to anticipate the fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ, when God will break through the darkness and visit us with the light of salvation. In Christmastide, we will celebrate wholeheartedly our newborn King and the gifts he brings.
Such a grid in two movements reveals an understanding of life that is alien to our culture. The dominant ideology of our culture is committed to continuity and success and to the avoidance of pain, hurt, and loss. The dominant culture is also resistant to genuine newness and real surprise. It is curious but true, that surprise is as unwelcome as loss. And our culture is organized to prevent the experience of both.
This means that when we practice either move — into disorientation or into new orientation — we engage in a countercultural activity, which by some will be perceived as subversive. Perhaps that is why the complaint psalms have nearly dropped out of usage. Where the worshiping community seriously articulates these two moves, it affirms an understanding of reality that knows that if we try to keep our lives we will lose them, and that when lost for the gospel we will be given life (Mark 8:35). Such a practice of the Psalms cannot be taken for granted in our culture, but will be done only if there is resolved intentionality to live life in a more excellent way.
– Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms
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Not only in reading the Psalms, but also in practicing the Church Year, remembering our baptism each day, and living out of a theology of the Cross rather than the theology of glory in all our thinking, acting, and ministering, will we find our lives shaped to be like Christ in the Biblical pattern of his life, death, and resurrection.