When I first started visiting an Episcopal church years ago, it was early on Sunday and the occasional weekday morning. I'd enter the church in the dark and the quiet, slip into a pew, kneel and say some prayers. Then I didn't know what to do. Whether or not anyone else was present, it would be ever so quiet and still, and my mind would race in a million different directions. What steadied me and prepared me for the Eucharist was leafing through the Book of Common Prayer.
I soon developed the habit of reading the Psalms. I'd simply open up a page at random and start reading, the more obscure and unfamiliar, the better. I was struck with the violence and anguish in many, but most of all the deeply human voices I heard crying and singing out of time and space. They came to me when I most needed to hear them, when I was lost, hopelessly I thought.
This morning it is dark and still. I recently put the Daily Office (courtesy of Josh Thomas at http://www.dailyoffice.org/home.html) on my Google Reader, but this was the first time I did more than give it a cursory glance. Lo and behold, there was one of those psalms, the quirky, howling kind that came to me so often in that early morning sanctuary.
I can't explain why I love these so. I know -- they seem to speak in terms of violence, vengeance, and retribution, darkly dividing the world between Me and Them. That's not what I hear, though. It's the intensity, the emotion, the raw humanity that draw me in, yet leave me with a quietude and trust beyond all reason. It is the scandal of the Incarnation, the God who comes to us in the Bethlehem stable, knows the depth of our betrayal in the garden, and finally reaches out to us in our broken humanity as we kneel, trembling beneath the Cross. He knows and hears us when our voices cry out in anger and despair, yet steadies and draws us near. God is forever just and merciful through all the torrents of our human cries and cares.
Here is today's psalm from Morning Prayer
Hear my prayer, O God; *
do not hide yourself from my petition.
Listen to me and answer me; *
I have no peace, because of my cares.
I am shaken by the noise of the enemy *
and by the pressure of the wicked;
For they have cast an evil spell upon me *
and are set against me in fury.
My heart quakes within me, *
and the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling have come over me, *
and horror overwhelms me.
And I said, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! *
I would fly away and be at rest.
I would flee to a far-off place *
and make my lodging in the wilderness.
I would hasten to escape *
from the stormy wind and tempest.”
Swallow them up, O Lord; confound their speech; *
for I have seen violence and strife in the city.
Day and night the watchmen make their rounds upon her walls, *
but trouble and misery are in the midst of her.
There is corruption at her heart; *
her streets are never free of oppression and deceit.
For had it been an adversary who taunted me,
then I could have borne it; *
or had it been an enemy who vaunted himself against me,
then I could have hidden from him.
But it was you, a man after my own heart, *
my companion, my own familiar friend.
We took sweet counsel together, *
and walked with the throng in the house of God.
Let death come upon them suddenly;
let them go down alive into the grave; *
for wickedness is in their dwellings, in their very midst.
But I will call upon God, *
and the LORD will deliver me.
In the evening, in the morning, and at noonday,
I will complain and lament, *
and he will hear my voice.
He will bring me safely back from the battle waged against me; *
for there are many who fight me.
God, who is enthroned of old, will hear me and bring them down; *
they never change; they do not fear God.
My companion stretched forth his hand against his comrade; *
he has broken his covenant.
His speech is softer than butter, *
but war is in his heart.
His words are smoother than oil, *
but they are drawn swords.
Cast your burden upon the LORD,
and he will sustain you; *
he will never let the righteous stumble.
For you will bring the bloodthirsty and deceitful *
down to the pit of destruction, O God.
They shall not live out half their days, *
but I will put my trust in you.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.