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Praying Our Emotions

Our congregation lives in a secular California suburban culture that’s enamored by and often addicted to the latest trends in fashion, décor, and home design. A thousand voices urge us to work and purchase our way to happiness. Two years ago anyone driving through our growing city might have been impressed by its carefully manicured lawns, late-model SUVs, and growing number of hybrids. Everything looked new. Everyone looked happy. On the outside everything was fine. It was as if everyone was busy refining what sociologists call “image management.”

Those of us who are believers are mightily temped to continue image management inside the church. We may appear to have the perfect marriage, the perfect children, and the perfect life. As a congregation, we’re even tempted to present ourselves as the perfect church.

But far too often, on the inside we feel like a toxic waste site. An untamed tangle of anger, envy, jealousy, and other emotions belies our fine exterior. In addition, external chaos threatens our peace and quiet: we give birth to a child with special needs, we are diagnosed with brain cancer, or we learn that our spouse is having an affair. When disorder threatens our world, two options present themselves. One is to dump our faith, declaring, “It doesn’t work.” We pronounce belief bankrupt and move on. A second option, often chosen by folks with deeper ties to church subculture, is to mouth pious clichés. While inwardly retching, we maintain an exterior of religious platitudes. We mouth the kind of slogans found on Christian bumper stickers and key chains.

Believing that our community, both inside and outside the church, desperately needed a third way, our church spent a year in the psalms. The psalms urge us to pray the mess of our emotions as an act of faith. Their ancient voices offer wise guides for worship.

In the middle of our psalm-focused worship series, the U.S. recession struck with full force. Record numbers of foreclosures hit California. Our community became a national leader in upside-down mortgages, home repossessions, and job loss.

In the midst of this chaos, we found ourselves turning to the psalmists’ ancient words and adding our own voices to their never-ending rhythm of praise, lament, confession, and wisdom. Our original series was ten weeks long, and included sermons on Psalms 4, 42, 46, 47, and 73.

Week 1—Anatomy of the Soul

Scripture: Psalm 1
Sermon Notes

The first psalm talks about our tendency to move. Part of us desperately wants to follow the urgent, seductive voices that tell us we must be sleek enough or smart enough or well-read enough to fit in. We must do something! Imagine a life of perpetual motion: the image of a life going fast, but unsure where it’s going. We shift girlfriends, vocations, vehicles, political parties, or neighborhoods. Unsettled, we cast an envious eye at people around us. What they sing or say or dance or travel, we imitate. Never fully satisfied, our mood is always urgent.

Psalm 1 pictures such a life, and then suggests an alternative. We can, instead, live with poise. Our lifestyle can be steady, calm, and rich with quiet, focused action.

A hikers’ guide describes Redwood National Park as “a place where the most irreligious person can find religion.” Something about a two-thousand-year-old redwood slows a person down. These ancient trees literally give life to those around them. A godly person doesn’t need to go anywhere. She bears fruit exactly where she is.

Note: Some of the psalm settings used in our worship were written by church musicians, therefore no reference is given. Check your congregation’s song repertoire to find a setting of these psalms that they are familiar with.

Worship Outline: Week 1

Welcome and call to worship: Psalm 150

Opening worship songs
“Psalm 150”
“Better Is One Day (Psalm 84)”
(Matt Redman, www.worshiptogether.com)

Introduction to Psalms/History of Psalms

Recitation of Psalm 136 with congregational responses:
His love endures forever.

Song of response: “Give Thanks to the Lord”
(Gregg DeMey, 2002, from the CD In Every Corner, gregg.demey@elmhurstcrc.org)

Offering

Sermon: “Psalm 1”

The Lord’s Supper

The Apostles’ Creed

Psalm 103 excerpts

Song: “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” (Stuart Townend, www.worshiptogether.com)

Departing blessing: Psalm 67

Week 2—Beauty

Scripture: Psalm 27
Sermon Notes

Beauty, we say, is in the eye of the beholder. One person looks at an abstract piece of art and says, “Fantastic!” Another comments, “People pay money for that?” Someone hears the deafening roar of NASCAR engines blasting through a five-speaker surround-sound system and blurts, “Totally awesome!” Another wonders, “Don’t you get the cooking channel?” One person considers his blue house with violet trim an avant-garde statement of artistic independence in an otherwise monochrome neighborhood. His neighbors find themselves researching the fine print of city building codes. And so it goes. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Friendships often form around our common definitions of beauty. Baseball fans gather at historic Yankee Stadium; together they relish a hot dog with mustard, cold beer in a plastic cup, peanuts tossed from twenty feet away, and chants that question the center fielder’s manhood. Fans of another sort stroll into an atrium of finished Italian marble and exquisite sculptures. Later they gather in concert seats to hear a fine violinist playing Mozart. Intermission features imported cheese and French wine. Both groups gather with friends in the presence of beauty.

At the center of this psalm is the one thing the author desires. The whole psalm pivots on what verse 4 describes. At the center is this most beautiful thing: the face of God. As he enters the temple, the great desire of this poet is not personal forgiveness or a change of circumstance. He asks for God himself. If he can know God, he can endure anything.

Worship Outline: Week 2
Welcome and call to worship: Psalm 95:1-2
Opening worship songs

“How Great Is Our God” CSW 3
“Sing Alleluia” SFL 68, SWM 184

Psalm 27 litany with musical interludes (see sidebar)

Song of response: “Everlasting God” (Brenton Brown, www.worshiptogether.com)

Prayer

We greet one another

Offering: “God’s Beauty” (Gregg DeMey, 2002, gregg.demey@elmhurstcrc.org)

Sermon: “The Beauty”

Song of response: “This Is My Father’s World” CH 143, HFW 198, PH 293, PsH 436, SFL 95, SWM 62, TH 111, WR 21

Departing Blessing

Week 3—Darkness Is My Closest Friend

Scripture: Psalm 88
Sermon Notes

In the 2001 season finale of NBC’s West Wing, President Bartlet is in anguish. His secretary has died in a drunk-driving accident. Political opponents are about to leak word of his multiple sclerosis to demonstrate his inability to lead. Torment over life’s cruel twists leads him to linger in the National Cathedral after his secretary’s funeral. After other guests have left, and with secret service agents blocking the doors, he prays. His prayer doesn’t begin, “Our Father who art in Heaven.” No. With nerves raw, Bartlett says to God, “You’re a feckless thug.”

Almost a third of the psalms are laments. Suffering people beg God for rescue or relief. Almost every lament begins in trouble but ends with hope. Eventually the one praying sees God begin to work in circumstances or inside his own heart. Almost every lament shifts from complaint to hope. Almost. The one exception, Psalm 88, ends with the stage dark. The light of our hope has gone out.

Commentator Walter Brueggemann writes that this psalm embarrasses conventional faith. Christians, especially North American Christians, are naïve about suffering. We live in a world where everything is designed to fix our distress. We go to the doctor to replace our a bad knee. We go to the pharmacist for quick pain relief. We leave neighborhoods or jobs or spouses or children to avoid suffering. But in this “dark” psalm God gives us the gift of a prayer that does not resolve. Faith means staying, even when answers don’t come. Psalm 88 is an important prayer to have in our repertoire, because life is like that. We all spend time in darkness.

Worship Outline

Welcome and call to worship: Psalm 47:1-2

Opening worship songs
“God Himself Is With Us” HFW 98, PsH 244, TH 382
“How Can I Keep from Singing?” HFW 182

Story of Faith

Song of response: “Shelter” (Sandra McCracken, www.sandramccracken.com)

Interview with ministry staff

Song: “Forever” (Chris Tomlin, www.worshiptogether.com)

We greet one another

Offering

Recitation of Psalm 88

Sermon: “Darkness Is My Only Friend”

Song of response: “Rock of Ages” (James Ward, www.jameswardmusic.com)

Departing Blessing

Week 4—A Culture of Thanks

Scripture: Psalm 100
Sermon Notes

People grumble about their food. People grumble about their mechanic. People grumble about the government, their spouse, their neighbors. Listen and you will hear a thousand grumbles.

A few years ago art critic Robert Hughes wrote a critique of American society. His thesis was that we live in a “culture of complaint” in which people believe they are entitled to have all of their desires fulfilled. We take a high level of happiness to be part of our birthright, and when it doesn’t happen, we assign ourselves victim status.

Grumbling is often a favorite pastime of God’s people. Few vices are indulged in more often. The Israelites complained even when God graciously gave them manna, water from a rock, and miraculous passage through the Red Sea. Peter had to urge the Christians of his day to offer hospitality—but to do it without grumbling.

The psalms call us to a different way. They teach us to live each day by giving (praying) thanks. Thanksgiving psalms give words for our gratitude.

Psalms 93-99 are enthronement psalms celebrating God’s kingship. Each increases and expands our understanding of what it means to have God as our King. Maybe Psalm 100 follows these enthronement psalms as an application—because God is king, we can break free from our addiction to grumbling and live new, grateful lives. God liberates us from the penitentiary of self-preoccupation and gives us capacity for gratitude, the heart of redeemed living.

Worship Outline

Welcome and call to worship: Psalm 100

Opening worship songs
“Now Thank We All Our God” CH 788, HFW 58, PH 555, PsH 454, SFL 33, SNC 228 (refrain only), SWM 230, TH 98, WR 14
“All Creatures of Our God and King” CH 63, HFW 41, PH 455, PsH 431, SFL 86, SWM 14, TH 115, WR 23

Thanksgiving Prayer (see sidebar)

Worship songs
“Psalm 121”
“All People That on Earth Do Dwell” CH 101, HFW 84,  PH 220, SFL 10, TH 1, WR 661

We greet one another

Offering

Sermon: “Thanks!”

Song of response: “Oh, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” CH 371, PH 466, PsH 501, SFL 19, SWM 42, TH 164

Departing Blessing (2 Peter 3:18)
Speaker 1: Forever!
Speaker 2: Both now and
Speaker 1: Forever!
Speaker 3: To him be glory
Speaker 2: Both now and
Speaker 1: Forever!
Speaker 4: Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Speaker 1: Forever!
Speaker 2: Both now and
Speaker 1: Forever!
Speaker 3: To him be glory
Speaker 2: Both now and
Speaker 1: Forever!
Speaker 4: Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Speaker 3: To him be glory
Speaker 2: Both now and
Speaker 1: Forever!
All: Amen!

Week 5—Vengeance Prayer

Scripture: Psalm 137

Sermon Notes

Perhaps no psalm is more chilling than Psalm 137. We expect psalms to lift our thoughts and inspire us. We expect calming words, an antiseptic to the mess of our life. We expect God to help us with Ann Landers-like advice, to dispense tips for how to spruce up the edges of our life. Many of us learned what Eugene Peterson calls “pseudo prayer”—spouting pious-sounding clichés. But authentic prayer shocks us; it forces us to face reality. Evil lurks on our streets, in our neighbors, and in us. God’s prayer book offers samples packed with emotion. In Psalm 137 the emotion is raw and white-hot.

We tend to think, “I’m so glad we’re all beyond all that. That is so primitive and awful.” But the context of Psalm 137 moves us to deeper truth. An eyewitness reflects on an awful memory that still brings searing pain: soldiers came roaring into town and found mothers with babes in their arms. They grabbed them by their little feet and dashed their brains out on walls or rocks.

When we pray “Thy kingdom come” we’re praying this psalm. We’re asking God to deal with the evil landlord who gets rich by fleecing a person with schizophrenia, with the grade-school bully who terrorizes little kids on the playground, with the sexual predator who seduces yet another victim. Maybe you don’t feel any personal vindictiveness toward such folks, but this psalm helps all of us pray with people who do. Brueggemann says that our prayer life is selfish if it only attends to our needs. This prayer invites us to address the King, who alone gives hope in the midst of such alarming disorder.

Worship Outline

Welcome: Psalm 135:1-4

Opening worship songs
“God of Wonders” (Marc Byrd and Steve Hindalong, www.worshiptogether.com)
“How Great Is Our God” CSW 3

Song of response: “Take My Life and Let It Be” CH 597, HFW 158, PH 391, PsH 288, TH 585

On Forgiving Our Enemies (see sidebar)

We greet one another

Offering

Sermon: “Praying Our Revenge”

Song of response: “Be Thou My Vision” CH 562, HFW 32, PH 339, SWM 161, TH 642, WR 502

Departing Blessing

Week 6—The Original Praise Song

Scripture: Psalm 150
Sermon Notes

The psalter begins in a tone brimming with confidence. Psalm 1 urges us to choose God’s way, to live in obedience, and to receive the blessings of his law. Subsequent psalms teach us to pray our every trouble, question, doubt, and anxiety—even utter darkness. The Psalter invites us to a prayer life filled with staggering candor, a spiritual map that leads us down honest paths. At its end, this ancient guide gives us a final prayer of praise. The liturgical Hallelujah that has sounded throughout the Psalter becomes an entire psalm. The obedient life begun in Psalm 1 ends in adoration.

In a real sense, a life of praise is irrational. Bidding us leave our world of e-mail, Twitter, and memos, praise steers us away from narrow lives. From infancy we learned cultural symbols of achievement and objectivity. Praise, on the other hand, invites us to see life as mystery and gift. Calling us to ditch passive routines and pious platitudes, praise is boisterous and disruptive. But even more, praise is an act of trust. When we praise, we cede our life to God the King. We say—no, shout—“God runs our life!”

Psalm praise isn’t naïve. It recognizes that life is flawed. It knows the world is skewed, that sometimes innocent people suffer. Nor is it demanding; it asks for no answers or favors. But even as it faces reality unflinchingly, it calls each of us to join the eternal orchestra of praise. The final prayer tells anyone who will listen: God gives us our breath. And the wisest thing to do with that breath is to “praise the Lord!”

Worship Outline

Welcome and call to worship: Psalm 117

Opening worship song: “Forever” (Chris Tomlin, www.worshiptogether.com)

Contemporary psalm from Tanzania (see sidebar)

Song of response: “Psalm 150”

Story of Grace: Family devotions with the Psalms

Worship song: “Give Thanks to the Lord” (Gregg DeMey, 2002)

Psalm 27 with musical interludes (see sidebar)

Worship song: “Psalm 23”

Recitation of Psalm 100

Prayer

We greet one another

Recitation of Psalm 134, entire congregation

Offering

Sermon: “Where Shall My Wond’ring Soul Begin?”

Song of response: “Bless the Lord (Psalm 103)” (see music at right)

Departing Blessing

EXCERPTS

Psalm 27 Litany for Two Readers with Musical Interludes

Musical Interlude: “The Lord Is My Light” (Songs and Prayers from Taizé, www.giamusic.com)

The LORD is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?
When the wicked advance against me to devour me, it is my enemies and my foes who will stumble and fall.
Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then will I be confident.
One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle and set me high upon a rock. Then my head will be exalted above the enemies who surround me; at his tabernacle I will sacrifice with shouts of joy; I will sing and make music to the LORD.

Musical Interlude: “The Lord Is My Light”

Hear my voice when I call, LORD; be merciful to me and answer me.
My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, LORD, I will seek.
Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger; you have been my helper. Do not reject me or forsake me, O God my Savior. Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me.

Musical interlude: “The Lord Is My Light”

Teach me your way, LORD; lead me in a straight path because of my oppressors. Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes, for false witnesses rise up against me, spouting malicious accusations. I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.
I, too, remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD;
Be strong and take heart. Wait for the LORD!

Psalm 100 Thanksgiving Prayer for Three Readers

(The following prayer is adapted from “Give Thanks to God, All the Earth: A Litany for Thanksgiving” by Debra and Ron Rienstra, RW 61)

Refrain: Give thanks to the Lord!
Reader 1: Let us give thanks to God for ballot boxes, newspaper editorials, and a country with elected leaders.
Reader 2: For all the freedoms we enjoy.
Reader 1: Let us give thanks for diplomats, treaties, and compromise.
Reader 2: For peace in a world of war.
Reader 1: For police officers, streetlights, and concerned neighbors.
Reader 2: For safety from fear and harm.
Reader 1: Let us give thanks to God for St. Paul and Priscilla, St. Francis and St. Claire, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, and Mother Theresa.
Reader 3: For all the Christians who ran the race before us.
Reader 1: Let us give thanks to God for the Bible, for creeds and confessions, for the psalms, songs, and hymns of God’s people.
Reader 3: For all good things in our legacy of faith.
Reader 1: Let us give thanks to our Father God for a good creation, for Jesus his redeeming Son, and for the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
Reader 3: For all the benefits of our salvation.

Refrain
Reader 1: Let us give thanks to God for purple and orange sunsets, bright red flowers, great gray elephants, and the vast blackness of space.
Reader 2: For all the wonders, God, of your creative mind.
Reader 1: For Mozart, Michelangelo, and Milton, for pianos, paintbrushes, and pencils.
Reader 2: For all the wonders of our creative minds, made in your image, O Lord.
Reader 1: Let us give thanks to God for Thanksgiving turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.
Reader 3: For the abundance of food that sustains our bodies.
Reader 1: Let us give thanks for soft beds, warm fires, familiar chairs, and open windows.
Reader 3: For the comfort of our homes.
Reader 1: For cars that run, brand-new shoes, and long, hot showers.
Reader 3: For God’s goodness that flows above and beyond our needs.
Reader 1: Let us give thanks to God for aggressive immune systems, for running cross-country, and for sound sleep.
Reader 3: For the strength and health of our bodies.
Reader 1: Let us give thanks to God for crossword puzzles, learning unfamiliar languages, and plane geometry.
Reader 3: For healthy, strong minds.

Refrain
Reader 1: Let us give thanks to God for pesky little brothers, wise grandmothers, favorite uncles, loving parents, and new fiancées.
Reader 2: For the families that shape our lives.
Reader 1: Let us give thanks for surprise phone calls, funny birthday gifts, and long talks late at night.
Reader 2: For friends who stick with us as the years go by.
Reader 1: Let us give thanks to God for men and women with dark skin and light skin, freckles and curls, graceful limbs and ample laps.
Reader 2: For all the beautiful diversity of people, all over the world, who make up the one family of God, bound together in Jesus Christ.
Reader 1: God, for all your good gifts and especially for the gift of your Son, Jesus, we give you thanks and praise.
Amen.

Corrie Ten Boom on Forgiving Our Enemies

I continued to speak, partly because the home in Bloemendaal ran on contributions, partly because the hunger for Betsie’s story seemed to increase with time. I traveled all over Holland, to other parts of Europe, to the United States.

But the place where the hunger was greatest was Germany. Germany was a land in ruins, cities of ashes and rubble, but more terrifying still, minds and hearts of ashes. Just to cross the border was to feel the great weight that hung over the land.

It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center in Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there—the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face.

He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein,” he said. “To think that, as you say, he has washed my sins away!”

His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.

Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him.

I tried to smile. I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again, I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.

As I took his hand, the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder, along my arm and through my hand, a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.

And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.

—The Hiding Place, by Corrie Ten Boom with John and Elizabeth Sherrill. Permission granted by Chosen Books LLC.

A Contemporary Psalm from Tanzania

All you big things bless the Lord
Mount Kilimanjaro and Lake Victoria
The Rift Valley and the Serengeti Plain
Fat baobabs and shady mango trees
All eucalyptus and tamarind trees, bless the Lord.
Praise and extol God for ever and ever.
All you tiny things, bless the Lord
Busy black ants and hopping fleas
Wriggling tadpoles and mosquito larvae
Flying locusts and water drops
Pollen dust and tsetse flies
Millet seeds and dried dagaa, bless the Lord.
Praise and extol God for ever and ever.

—from One Table Devotional, 2009 CRWRC World Hunger Resources
(available from Faith Alive at 1-800-333-8300)