When we encounter the Psalms in worship, whether sung or through responsive readings, we rarely have time to think about what we’re saying. I’m usually the person leading them and I’m more concerned about pausing at the right place so I don’t talk over the congregational responses and making sure I pronounce the words properly. I become very self-conscious if I mangle a Psalm.
Not every Psalm in the lectionary (or the Bible) is included in the United Methodist Hymnal. Always remember to double check; it may pop up on the list but not be in the hymnal we read from on Sunday morning. To be lyric, beautiful, and poignant Hebrew poetry the Psalms are labor intensive. Even the shortest refrain can be a challenging read. Your brain is on to the next word or note without considering the words you’re saying.
It’s nice to spend some time with the Psalm before it goes into the bulletin. Many weeks, I simply trust the lectionary. That works most of the time. Occasionally, I pick the lectionary Psalm (and since I’m not preaching on it) and not look at it again until Sunday morning. Next thing you know, you’re reading about slaughter, blood, guts, gore and stuff that’s not quite the thing for middle class Methodists in the rural south. It’s not only a good idea to read ahead, thematically speaking. Sometimes, it’s good to read the Psalm and ask, “What in the hell is this trying to say?” If you create a speed bump, you might slow down long enough to ask, “What did our ancestors believe?” or “Were the people who wrote these verses serious about this?” Because, if they’re (that is the writer or writers) saying some crazy stuff and you think about all the strange things said in our world today, maybe it echoes in a really familiar way. As strange as it sounds, perhaps this little bit of poetry is too important to roll by, repeat in a chant like manner, and forget it for another cycle. What if we were to read it one word at a time, as strange as that sounds? I mean to really slow down and ask, “What is this poem saying about God and how God interacts with the world?”
For people accustomed to living with and through natural disasters, these are tough words to read. However, if you’ve lived a sheltered life and never experienced any kind of “act of God”, you may read these words as an awesome mission statement of God’s abilities and where to see the evidence of God’s power. Some of the phrases in the Psalm sound like Christian cliché’s we like to throw around as metaphors for God’s awesomeness. “The Lord’s voice is strong,” the writer says in one verse. He goes on to tell you how strong: so strong that it can break trees, kill livestock, and start forest fires. If you’ve never been through a fire, earthquake, mad cow disease in Britain (where I saw piles and piles of dead cows burning in the English countryside), stuff like that sounds great. You want to buy T-shirts, bracelets, and tote bags to tell the world of God’s fierceness when it comes to the natural world.
On the other hand, if you’ve seen a flood or two, lost your home, and watched cows burn these words might cause you to pause. Wait a minute. Whoa! What are we saying? Is God’s (voice) behind these events? If God’s voice (his means of communication-your voice is how you talk, right?) how will we ever be heard over the fires, jumping cows, and breaking trees?
The Psalm begins as an address to divine beings. There are other divine beings beside God. We miss things like this if we don’t read one word at a time. The Psalm says, “Divine beings”. Are they angels? I don’t know. Honestly, there’s no good answer. Could it be an implicit recognition of the Gods of neighboring countries and an acclamation that the Israelite God is the highest God? That’s a good guess, though it’s hard to say. It’s is possible to say that the Israelites had a much more expansive view of divinity than we do. We worship stuff, things, power, wealth, and so on. The Israelites inherited the cosmology of the Canaanites, Egyptians, Babylonians, and others. There was one real God, their God. Everyone else lived their lives surrounded by multiple Gods. The Israelites didn’t wipe out or extinguish the faith of others but they also stood firmly by what they believed. This Psalm acknowledges: we live in a world with competing loyalties, affiliations, and beliefs. It is possible to praise God and be in some kind of relationship with God, despite the existence these divine beings which aren’t God. While close to God and divine, they are not God. The Psalm seems to being trying to remind us who God is.
It’s important, that in the course of being reminded “Who God Is”, we also think about our own identity. We’re not the divine beings. We’re like the broken and despised, waiting by the Jordan for some sort of sign from God. We are waiting on God. Show us who you are, God.
This is a noisy Psalm. Man, is it a bunch of racket. It is hard to give the level of praise and glory the Psalmist demands in silence. The last book of the Bible is full of choirs of angels, singing, trumpets, and music. The Psalm is a hymn, after all, designed to be sung. This amount of praise and bowing by divine beings reminds me of Revelation. Out of this commotion and clatter we hear God’s voice and witness the effects of God speaking.
At first glance, it sounds like God is on quite the rampage. Nothing God created is safe from his voice; which is to say the Psalmist outlines a picture of God’s conversation with creation as one to which we are not a party. When God speaks, there seems to be little love or life. The volume ratchets up quickly, with the Lord’s voice thundering over the waters. Soon the cedars trees break, cows are jumping, and then fiery flames roar the wilderness. The roar of the rage is deafening. I think the most important question I can ask about this Psalm is this: How can you have a conversation with anyone who’s screaming at you? Is it possible to talk to someone who claims they love you but causes you to fear for your life? Victims of domestic abuse would say no. How are we to dialogue with anyone, group, constituency, or friend if we’re not being heard? Reading this Psalm feels like I’m being shaken within an inch of my life by someone who says they love me and then tries to prove it by destroying the world they built for me to inhabit. It feels wrong, abusive, and sad. It’s an awful message for the church to preach but one we need to hear, especially as we move forward. Psalm 29 reflects the deepest fears of those who’ve grown weary of the church’s attempts reform by committees. Yet, it reminds us how comfortable we are with the “God is an angry white man who destroys things” image that has dominated our thought for 2000 years.
The Psalm concludes with a word of encouragement. “The Lord gives strength to his people”. Where does this strength come from? Does it come from the ashes of forest fires or from the mold growing in our flooded homes? No, I don’t think so. I’ve seen strength grow from the adversity of natural disasters. That part is true. Does that come from God or someplace deep within? Again, I don’t know. People pull through. Verse 10 says that the “Lord sits enthroned over the floodwaters”. I don’t want the Lord sitting enthroned over the floodwaters. I want him out of his chair and in the water with me, walking through the mud and the muck. I want the Lord to stand with me in the water.
Jesus will and he does. As we, the broken, victimized, and abused look on from the banks of the Jordan; Jesus waits in the water. He invites us to stand with him. We come not to be made physically clean but to become the people God made us to be. In dirty water and surrounded by silence, we learn that God’s love is unconditional. Is standing in the water, ashes, and fields; in solidarity with those whom Jesus chose to identify with a possible way forward? I hope so.