Psalms for difficult days

by Maria Evans

Hold not your tongue, O God of my praise; *

for the mouth of the wicked,

the mouth of the deceitful, is opened against me.

They speak to me with a lying tongue; *

they encompass me with hateful words

and fight against me without a cause.

Despite my love, they accuse me; *

but as for me, I pray for them.

They repay evil for good, *

and hatred for my love.

​–Psalm 109:1-4 (Book of Common Prayer)

​​Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the people of this land], that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

–Prayer for Social Justice, p. 823 Book of Common Prayer

Link to US Census demographic data:

The small crowd that regularly attends Morning Prayer at my home parish on Wednesdays is an interesting bunch. Of most interest is the fact that the after-service chit-chat frequently lasts longer than it does to say the Office. That was certainly the case on a recent Wednesday in the Lectionary when Psalm 109 pops up. It’s a Psalm that’s really hard to hear and even harder to say. “Let his children be waifs and beggars?” Really? “Let the creditors seize everything he has?” Whoa!

That week, most of the after-service chit-chat was about Psalm 109, and the internal discomfort it causes from physically uttering its words. After a bit of discussion and a pause, I looked at the others and said, “You know…I’ve been THAT angry. There have been times I needed this psalm so I could say what I couldn’t say to someone’s face.” Our vicar also added that this was a psalm about injustice, and the anger that comes from injustice. This discomfort we feel, has a purpose, she added.

As I watch the situation in Ferguson, MO unfold, part of that purpose is being revealed. People are THAT angry–and I believe this anger is justified. A quick check of US Census data shows that the city of Ferguson is 67.4% African-American–clearly the majority population. It’s almost mind-boggling to realize that feelings and values and perceptions held by a MAJORITY of the citizens in a community have been able to remain beneath the surface as long as they have, even if they are just below the topsoil of the community. It reveals just how powerful unseen privilege is.

Part of our Anglican tradition is that when we devote ourselves to the Daily Office, we rotate through the entire Psalter several times a year–and we don’t skip the icky Psalms, either. We say aloud the despair of Psalm 88, and declare the joy of Psalm 103. We cringe at the angry curses of Psalm 109, and we shout with joy all the blessings in Psalm 24. We get a break with the brevity of Psalm 117 (why, it’s so short we can easily knock out three psalms that day!) and we return again and again to Psalm 119 over several days, wondering if we’ll ever get through all of it (and we always do, somehow.) We sense our own panic in Psalm 69, and gain strength in Psalm 46.

We say all of them, and we listen to others say them alongside us, when we choose to recite them in community. It’s how we begin to hear things differently when we choose to live into this tradition. It calls us, I believe, in the Episcopal Church, to seek out the places where the words are uncomfortable, hear those uncomfortable words being spoken aloud, and pray alongside of them. Not over them–the angry words, the fearful words–all the words and the emotions that accompany them–have value, and they must be spoken, just as we somehow stumble through saying and hearing those ickier Psalms. I’m heartened to hear several voices in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri who are encouraging all in Ferguson to remain in conversation with one another.

What Psalms do you hear emerging from the difficult and tense places in our nation and in our world?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, is a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church and a postulant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. She occasionally finds time to write about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid.

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