May 20, 2015

The Psalms as Spiritual Calculus

Who Needs It? 

My wife is a math tutor. She loves helping students make progress in all things arithmetic. Many of her students have serious cases of math anxiety. Others feel stuck, like their math knowledge died in third grade and can’t be resurrected. Others, once confident, are perplexed or angered by what feels like unmanageable problems, sometimes even blaming their tutor for lifelong mathematical frustration. More than a few want to chuck math out of their life and never deal look at it again, “Who needs math?” they demand from anyone who will listen. What seemed simple, intuitive, or even enjoyable in grade school now seems needlessly complicated and challenging, something irrelevant to a full and rich adult life. 

Many frustrated mathematicians can point to the exact time their math “fell of the rails” and became confusing, even dead to them. For some it was a prolonged absence from math, maybe an illness that kept them from school. For others a family crisis launched a personal math crisis as they transferred between schools. They got mathematically lost. And never got found again.

The same is true for the life of faith. Many folks are introduced to faith at an early age. They go to Sunday school or camp with a friend. They hear a TV prayer and get intrigued. Grandma “says grace” her table and they find themselves interested. Maybe they attend Christian day school or worship services or youth groups regularly.  They start the life of faith, but like my wife’s math students, at some point “fall off rails.” Maybe their fiancée jilted them and their shallow faith seemed inadequate. Maybe a university professor questioned faith’s logic, and they were soon reeling into spiritual confusion and then agnosticism. They get spiritually stuck or lost and declare faith irrelevant to a rich and full adult life.

Fundamentals: Learning for Life

Jesus-lovers are powerfully tempted to capture and build spiritual interest among children and youth via games, Mountain Dew, hip youth trips, and slick videos. But when these folks are faced with more complex problems of faith, it seems irrelevant and shallow. They never navigate the bewildering change from “kids church” to “big church.” 

I wonder if a solution, like in the case of my wife’s math students, is a lifetime of nurture on faith’s fundamentals. Like math student who never learned multiplication tables, we students of faith need to learn—and re-learn, and re-re-learn—the vocabulary of prayer. And the best “curriculum” for that is the psalter, God’s prayer book of all times and places.

A few weeks ago our church staff studied what some researchers are calling “sticky faith.” Faith-based pollsters are researching what helps kids faith “stick” over a lifetime. And what they’re suggesting as essentials for a lifetime of faith are exactly what the psalms provide: intergenerational connection, permission and vocabulary to doubt freely, and the dodging of easy answers.

Any of us can imagine a worship leader, youth pastor or children’s director dodging the psalms. Ancient poetry can seem mysterious and even frightening, full of foreign images and unknown geography. Psalms seem a puzzle, alien and distant. But they are also the words, and especially the prayers, of “sticky faith.” To learn the words of psalms is to learn the equivalent of math’s multiplication tables, the essentials that prepare you for the more complicated calculus problems of life. In time of severe doubt or spiritual unrest the psalms give us words to say, and if we learn these words early in our spiritual formation, those words are familiar friends during the chaos we call adolescence. What if a person knows the psalms like a wise mathematician knows her multiplication tables? Could such a person be surprised by disorienting doubt, or anger too foul to safely express? They would have heard about such feelings—and prayed about them—all our spiritual life.

Jesus learned the psalms as a child. So it was no accident that in his most trying hour he quoted Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why…?” and Psalm 31 “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Following Jesus example, the early church leader Athanasius suggested mothers learn the Hebrew language so that they and their children could learn the psalms in their original language.

Could it be that people formed by a robust diet of psalms (in worship and youth groups and individual prayer) will never get “stuck” in their faith? Could it be that no antogonistic university chemistry professor could barrage a student with more doubts than she’d already memorize in the psalter? Could it be that if we are spiritually lost or “off the rails” a place to begin again is to know and love the psalms?

I teach spiritual disciplines to seminary students. These bright people have read and reread their bibles. They are spiritually alive, inquisitive and eager learners. But when I assigned them Psalm 3 as a memorization project, many were first put off, and then profoundly relieved to hear the harsh prayer vocabulary about enemies. Enemies? At first these people of profound goodwill and good deeds thought, “Enemies, who has enemies? Surely not them, church-going, peaceable additions to any neighborhood. But memorizing the psalm helped them identify and then pray about, and for their enemies. Tears overflowed in class as we talked about specific enemies, and prayed for them.     

All this affects worship. Isn’t that the place for the psalms? Isn’t that the place where all of us learn and re-learn faith’s vocabulary? Isn’t that the place to pray and sing and practice the prayer book of God’s people, to learn faith’s addition and multiplication tables, to prepare for what will feel like “spiritual calculus,” to develop a “sticky faith?”

Kevin Adams is the author of Living Under Water: Baptism as a Way of Life150: Finding Your Story in the PsalmsThe Book That Understands You, and The Gospel in a Handshake: Framing Worship for Mission. In 1991 Kevin and his wife Gerry began Granite Springs Church, a congregation that has helped inspire a movement of church planting in the Sacramento area. He was Director of Formation at the Newbigin House of Studies in San Francisco, and has taught at Calvin SeminaryWestern Seminary, and William Jessup University. Besides serving as senior pastor, he is writing a book about living our baptism. Kevin is fascinated and intrigued by how worship forms and shapes individuals and contagious communities of faith. His special interests are in the missional depth and wisdom of the psalms, sacraments, and preaching.