In 1985, Walter Brueggemann, one of the foremost Old Testament scholars of his generation, published a book called “The Message of the Psalms.”
Scholars agree that the Psalms were not all written by King David, but that this “book” is a collection of psalms written by a wide variety of authors over a period of many hundreds of years. Some are thanksgiving songs; others are powerful laments; some are songs sung by a worshipping congregation; others are prayed by an individual.
The genius of Brueggemann’s study is to treat the Psalms both theologically and pastorally. He links the different kinds of Psalms with different conditions in human life. The Psalms, he says, help the faithful community pray through three different conditions of human life—orientation, disorientation, and new orientation.
“Orientation” describes a season of well–being when the world works as it should. We are grateful for the goodness of life. In terms of faith, we rejoice in all the blessings of life and give thanks to the Creator. We are grateful for the constancy, coherence, and reliability of life.
But life isn’t always coherent. “Disorientation” describes a season of suffering, alienation, hurt, and death. At such times, we vent our pain in rage, self–pity, resentment, and even hatred (Psalm 137:8–9). In terms of faith, we rage against the absence of God and fall into despair. We use hyperbole and extravagant speech which is large enough to give voice to our experiences.
Life doesn’t stay there either. “New Orientation” describes a season of healing and reconciliation which often catches us by surprise. Life is made new. Joy overcomes despair. In terms of faith, God’s love overwhelms us, and we are surprised once more by the gospel of light shining in places that were formerly shadowed, and God’s life overcoming death and making all things new.
Brueggemann interprets these different Psalms as giving voice to each of these moments in life. As a result, it may not be helpful to pray a Psalm of orientation when your life is in the grips of disorientation. By the same taken, a Psalm of lament is less helpful during times of orientation or new orientation.
Psalms of Orientation include such beloved psalms as Psalm 8 or 19, which celebrate the goodness of creation and the wonder of Torah which gives order to our lives. These psalms celebrate the moral symmetry of a world in harmony with God’s purposes. Psalm 133 evokes the blessing of family or tribal solidarity. Psalm 131 is a quiet and humble song of hope prayed in a well ordered and reliable world which rests in the love of its Creator.
Psalms of Disorientation constitute the largest group among the 150 psalms. Psalm 13 is a personal lament which blames God for being absent when trouble strikes. In Psalm 74, the community laments when the Temple has been violated, asking God to remember the promises to be with them always. Psalm 51 laments the breach of our relationship with God because of sin, and we pray for restoration and reconciliation. Two Psalms go to very dark places (88 and 109), when life has become simply intolerable. Life is full of trouble, my enemies are all around me, and there is no longer any reason to go on living.
Psalms of New Orientation include some of the best loved Psalms—thanksgiving songs such as Psalm 30, in which God “changes my mourning into dancing”, or Psalm 40 which claims God as “my help and my deliverer”, or Psalm 23 which paints a world of calm and generous provision and peace. These psalms help us pray with a new confidence and a zest for new life springing out of death and vibrant light shining in a world which was once filled with shadows.
All of this is interesting, but so what?
This has been a helpful way for me of thinking about what has overtaken us during the pandemic. Before we ever heard of COVID–19, life seemed to be going along very well. There were some personal tragedies, to be sure—the death of loved ones, marriages ending in divorce, illnesses of various kinds, personal tragedies, poverty. I don’t minimize those for one moment; but for the world as a whole, it was mostly a time of orientation. We thought we had life figured out. We thought we understood that life was mostly pretty stable.
Then, in the blink of an eye, we entered a time of severe disorientation. Just like that, life changed for all of us. We began to question everything we thought we knew about life. We lost so much—we couldn’t hug; we couldn’t get together; we couldn’t share a meal, or celebrate a wedding, or mourn in a funeral. We lost a whole year of our lives.
I believe we are still in that time of disorientation. Near the end of it, I hope, but still there. We have learned some new skills to make life as safe as we can—physical distancing, hand–washing, wearing masks, meeting others over Zoom or Facetime or Skype. But we are still feeling the loss deeply.
I think we are at the beginning of the end of disorientation. We are not in a time of new orientation. Not yet. It may be just beyond the horizon, but it isn’t here yet. There is still enough bad news out there—more transmissible variants, people resisting vaccination, people insisting on their rights to do whatever they wish, a new anxiety about getting out again.
But a new time is coming. How might we live together in that new, surprising, life–giving future?
In the next few weeks, I hope to reflect on that question, from both the perspective of how we might do that in our common humanity and also in terms of Christian faith and the role the church might play in it all.
Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook