I fully believe and affirm that “all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” But as I prepared to preach through Psalm 40 this weekend, I was freshly reminded that studying the Psalms can be tough.
They’re a different sort of Scripture, aren’t they?!? They’re not narrative. They’re poetic. They’re not necessarily linear, or literal, or logical. They’re episodic, and evocative, and emotional. They don’t necessarily have a central lesson to teach. They impart an impression. They typically train our feelings more than our thoughts.
For all of these reasons, I’m not sure that studying the Psalms is really the most meaningful approach to the Psalms. Pore over them as master works of literature? Yes. Learn something of a language for your heart? Absolutely. “Get to know” God in the intimate, personal way? For sure. But studying and cross-referencing and analyzing them to intellectually know and delineate the finer points of Christian theology? That’s tougher.
So one of the things that I chose to pass along to our church this weekend was a tool that I picked up this past summer from another church in our network, out at Illinois State University. It’s a thing that their pastors do regularly, when they sit together to talk through church leadership stuff.
It’s a communal practice for worshipping God through the Psalms.
It doesn’t really require a leader or facilitator. It doesn’t even require any advance preparation. These pastors in central Illinois will just sit together and decide to read a Psalm together. They’ll see if anyone has a particular suggestion, but they’ll often end up just picking a number at random. They’ll go through whatever Psalm they choose together: one reading the words out-loud while the others read along silently. And when they get to the end of the Psalm, they’ll just sit in silence.
After some unspecified amount of time in silence, someone will start by sharing an impression. An observation of something special or personally-meaningful from the Psalm. That impression might trigger affirmations or other questions or observations from that part of the text — or it might just stand on its own and trail off into another time of silent reflection. Someone else might chime in with a completely different impression from a completely different part of the Psalm. And again, it might prompt group interaction, or it might not.
The process will continue for as long as it continues to yield new thoughts or feelings. Or as long as the time frame allows. And then, when everyone feels ready, the group will close in a prayer of worship, emotionally echoing the essence of the Psalm back to God as a living prayer.
It’s not groundbreaking. It’s quite simple, in fact. But I’ve really enjoyed it, in my own life. We’ve started doing it occasionally as church leaders, too. So maybe it’s something to try with your community, as well. It could provide a way to more easily access the wealth of emotional wisdom that’s offered to us in the Psalms.