13 February 2013

30 Psalms

The weeks between Epiphany and Lent are among the darkest of the year.

Sure, the sun sets before I can return home from my teaching job on most days, but they are spiritually muddled, too.

I blame New Year's resolutions. The Christian calendar has plenty of opportunities for reflection and the practice of discipline (like Lent), but resolutions throw a secular wrench into the works. I often spend January trying to lose weight, exercise more, avoid eating out, etc.  It is usually one of the more unexciting times of the year to practice my faith.

This year, I made a resolution that resolved this dilemma. In the six weeks between Epiphany Sunday and Ash Wednesday, I would write out 30 psalms by hand.  This idea isn't new, but the practice was for me. I accomplished my goal this week with two days to spare.

(Here's I need to give a shout out to my academy friend, Doug Pratt, who posted the idea to Facebook before Christmas. At the time I read it, I thought how silly it would be to try something like this during the busy, holiday season, but later I was inspired to try writing out 30 psalms after Advent.)

I just wanted to post some of the things I learned about the psalms during this encounter. I have extended my obsession with the Jewish Temple to meditating on psalms 42, 84, 95, 103, 130, and 40 in other blogs on this site, so I won't spend a lot of time on analysis on this blog.

  • I tried to be "led" to psalms. I'd hear one referenced in a sermon or on a Facebook post, and I'd plan to transcribe it.  For example, after one NFL playoff game, I saw Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis wearing a shirt that said, "Psalm 91." I hate the Ravens with the bitterness only a Cleveland Browns fan can know, but that night I transcribed the psalm.
  • I saved Psalm 30 for one of my last. It was a most pleasant discovery, especially given the context of Lent:  
    • "What is it to be gained by my spilled blood, by my going down into the pit?  Does dust thank you? Does it proclaim your faithfulness? Lord, listen and have mercy upon me! Lord, be my helper!" (verses 9-10).
    • What follows soon after is a foretaste of Easter: "You changed my mourning into dancing. You took off my funeral clothes and dressed me up in joy so that my whole being might sing praises to you and never stop. Lord, my God, I will give thanks to you forever."
  • I was surprised how many of the 30 psalms dealt with the theme of revenge and retribution. I think of psalms as expressions of praise and devotion. In fact, many of them follow a pretty simple formula:
    • "I acknowledge you, God, and I write your praise
    • ---> "No other divinity is like you."
    • ---> "No other nation is like yours."
    • ---> "There are people who oppose your king/your nation" (they're the same thing in the psalms).
    • ---> "Please punish them severely. OK?"
    • ---> "Then you will be acknowledged and praised once again."
  • I love to worship, and I believe the Psalms represent exemplars of worship.
  • But I consider the act of begging God to avenge himself upon my enemies to be a sacrilege.
  • I transcribed from the Common English Bible--a recent translation that is supported by a number of mainline Protestant denominations--that had been given to Owen when he completed confirmation classes at church. It was the first chance I'd had to really get into this Bible.  
    • The language of the CEB was, well, common--as opposed to rich (I prefer the NIV or TNIV). For example, I searched and searched the words, "Be still and know that I am God" (46:10).  So many translations of the Bible fail with the psalms because the King James owns the rhythm and the texture of the words. Reading a translation of the 23rd Psalm without "he leadeth me beside still waters" is about as off-putting as versions of Shakespeare's that rephrase Hamlet, saying, "To exist or maybe not to."  
    • In the CEB, Psalm 46:10 reads: "That's enough! Now know that I am God!"
    • Really? Can one replace "be still" with an exclamation point? It's jarring. And the rhythm is totally off. At least the double meaning remains
    • The CEB overuses exclamation points. I get it with the psalms--they're emotional, they're passionate. But only poor writers mistake exclamation points for passion, yet that's what the translators of this version have done. I won't bother to count them, but 40-60% of the sentences in the psalms I transcribed ended with exclamation points, which is 39-59% too many of them!
  • I'm not sure if you can read from the picture, but the psalms I transcribed were the following: 2, 5, 8, 14, 18, 19, 22, 27, 30, 40, 42, 45, 46, 51, 63, 77, 79, 81, 89, 90, 91, 100, 110, 115, 121, 127, 137, 139, 146, 150.