A Psalm for Every Occasion
Christians have turned to the Psalms over and over again throughout the history of the church. These ancient prayers have provided millions of people with just the right words to express their powerful emotions of agonizing grief, frightening confusion, or exultant joy. These are more than just beautiful words—they seem to tap into some of the most important aspects of what it means to live by faith.
This year, I was taught a framework that helps to describe how the Psalms relate to the universal spiritual journey. I learned it in a class taught by Dr. Peter Choi at the Newbigin House of Studies. If you haven’t heard of this program, it’s a nine-month online fellowship that provides theological formation by exploring the spiritual, public, and missional dimensions of the Christian life. Pittsburgh Theological Seminary is a partner seminary for this fellows program, so the fellowship provides credit for PTS’s master of divinity and other degree programs.
Orientation, Disorientation, and New Orientation
In the program’s Spiritual Theology course, we discussed some content from Walter Brueggemann’s The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary. In this wonderful commentary, Brueggemann supplies a framework for better understanding both the Psalter (the entire collection of the Psalms) and the spiritual life: orientation, disorientation, and new orientation.
According to this view, psalms of orientation correspond to seasons in life or faith marked by well-being. These are psalms of creation that look upon and celebrate God’s reliably ordered universe. Psalms of disorientation correspond instead to seasons of anguish, suffering, and death; these are poems marked by painful disarray. Finally, psalms of new orientation have almost a surprised tone as they rejoice in new gifts of life from God.
But Brueggemann draws our attention even more closely to the transitions between these seasons (and their associated Psalms). He calls these the two decisive moves of faith: from orientation to disorientation, and from disorientation to new orientation. The first move in the ancient Jewish context would have been evident in the people’s initial enslavement in Egypt, their unforeseen difficulties in the wilderness, the arrival of new enemies outside their borders, and the cataclysmic move to exile. In the early Christian tradition, the clearest move from orientation to disorientation was the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. This type of move is captured in the Psalter with psalms of lament.
The other decisive move of faith is from disorientation to new orientation. Ancient Jews were no strangers to hope. In Egyptian bondage they had prayed for deliverance, and eventually they would enter a promised land. As exiles in Babylon, they had dreamed of a return to that land of promise; while the new orientation might not have been what they expected, they were allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild and live in the city. For early Christians, of course, the disorientation of Christ’s death gave way to the new orientation of his resurrection. This movement of faith rings clearly in psalms of thanksgiving.
Psalms and Christian Spirituality
This is perhaps why the Psalms have been so useful in the spirituality of both individual Christians and communities of faith. They provide prayers calibrated to the decisive seasons and movements of faith and life: from a comfortable but naïve orientation to a bewildering and wretched disorientation; then, blessedly, from that pain and confusion to a new place of acceptance and gratitude. And, of course, over the span of a person or community’s life, these seasons and movements will occur many times.
Which season of life and faith are you currently experiencing? Does your heart need to cry out in anger or grief? Are you overcome by unexpected grace and love?
In any of these seasons, may the Psalms help you discover, name, and express to God what is in your mind and heart.
Jon Mathieu is a Master of Divinity student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. While his background is in mathematics, he has been engaged in ministry in Pittsburgh for more than a decade. Most recently he has served as a writer and program director at an evangelical church. Sensing God was leading him into new ways of thinking, believing, and loving, he became a fellow at the Newbigin House of Studies and a student at PTS. His writing has appeared on RelevantMagazine.com.