Praying the Psalms and Worship
By Dr. Chuck Pitts, Adjunct Professor of Old Testament, Houston Graduate School of Theology
Because I am preparing to teach a class on Psalms in July, I am reading Walter Brueggemann’s Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit. Brueggemann wrote the book in 1980, revising and republishing it in 2007. The book serves as an early example of Brueggemann working out his schema for understanding, studying, teaching, and using the Old Testament Book of Psalms. The well-known schema builds upon an understanding of our life of faith that moves with God along a trajectory of living in orientation to suffering in disorientation to experiencing the gift of reorientation. (Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms [Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2008], 2.) In other works, Brueggemann expands this schema and its application to the Book of Psalms. (Message of the Psalms [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984]; Spirituality of the Psalms, Facet Series [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2001].) For today’s blog, I would like to briefly discuss two of the suggestions that Brueggemann makes and suggest application to the life of the 21st-century church.
First, Brueggemann describes the state of orientation. “We all yearn for [orientation].… It consists in being well-settled, knowing that life makes sense and God is well-placed in heaven” (Praying the Psalms, 3). Naturally, we all want to live this life of orientation. However, Brueggemann also points out that in the biblical Book of Psalms this attitude of “equilibrium and safe orientation” is “minimal,” instead being the primary theology of the Book of Proverbs. This attitude of orientation is also the “mood of much of the middle-class Church.” Could this reality speak to the state of the church today? Consider that the Book of Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings meant to help people live better lives. It is not a rule book, but a collection of maxims and generalizations about how to live. Yet, this is where the church has laid its foundation—in the orientation of the generalizations for life. However, the Book of Psalms contains the prayers and songs of worship. The Book of Psalms more often reflects the pain and struggle of disorientation, rather than the settled life of orientation. Could our lack of reflecting the realities of disorientation in our worship cause us to have a false sense of self? I want to visit one other point that Brueggemann makes.
Brueggemann suggests, “The collection of the Psalter is not for those whose life is one of uninterrupted continuity and equilibrium. Such people should stay safely in the book of Proverbs, which reflects on the continuities of life” (Praying the Psalms, 10). Church members, like church worship, tends to focus on the life of orientation, even if the Book of Psalms—our book of prayers and worship songs—does not. Regarding orientation, Brueggemann argues that “few of us live that kind of life. Most of us who think our lives are that way have been numbed, desensitized, and suppressed so that we are cut off from what is in fact going on in our lives” (Praying the Psalms, 10). Perhaps Brueggemann is too cynical (and perhaps I am, too), but his statement has a ring a truth. Yes, life is filled with good things, and followers of Christ have the blessings of “abundant life” and freedom and forgiveness. However, cancer attacks, jobs are lost, spouses are abandoned, and children die. I fear that the church’s focus on the settledness of orientation leads to a state of denial in our worship. Should we find ways to work the disorientation that is often present in our lives and in the Book of Psalms into our worship? I think so—and so does Walter Brueggemann!