“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.” —Psalm 84:5
Earlier this year, Fuller Theological Seminary’s Brehm Center made a short film featuring internationally acclaimed rock star Bono in conversation with internationally acclaimed biblical scholar and writer Eugene Peterson. Bono and Peterson, it turns out, are good friends. They bonded many years ago, as the film explains, over their shared love of the psalms.
The film reminds us that the psalms, these prayers of God’s people, cross boundaries and generations. Ancient yet modern, enduring yet ever malleable to new forms and uses. The Reformed tradition, from the beginning, was powered by psalms, and the Christian Reformed Church draws on a heritage of fierce loyalty to these rough-edged, soaringly beautiful poems at the center of Christian devotion. As John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, recently wrote: “The psalms are about a way of life.”
A way of life. John’s comment led me to reflect on how the psalms have shaped me since girlhood, and I decided to page through them and note the ones I have loved deeply—creating a kind of “memoir in psalms.” I realize once again through this exercise how psalms have soaked into my spirit. Snippets, verses, songs, liturgies. Round after round of reading through them as the seasons turn. Prayer and study, including my scholarly field. My life is rich with the psalms, and I am so grateful.
Here are a few of my favorites. Perhaps you can make your own list.
I loved this one during the years I was writing my dissertation and giving birth to my first two babies. “She is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.” This encouraged me when I needed patience and felt fatigue. At the time, I was reading Marchiene Rienstra’s wonderful devotional book on the psalms, Swallow’s Nest, which gave permission to change the pronouns to “she”—a transformative exercise.
Prayed this one with a student I met with often as she tried to find God in the wilderness of trouble, sorrow, and hurt. We wondered together: When will her life turn from verses 1-4, “How long, O Lord?” to verses 5-6, “My heart rejoices in your salvation”? We’re still waiting and praying.
Memorized during Lent once. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” and “The commands of the Lord are radiant.” I always think of artists and scholars when reading this.
Of course. At the very heart of the faith. I memorized this as a tiny child and continue to drink from its still waters.
Got me through a time when I felt betrayed by someone I loved. The potent mixture of shock and helplessness was all there in the words “Do not let me be put to shame.” Followed by the urgent cry “Remember, O Lord, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old.”
Meant a lot to my mother. I know this because I now keep her Bible, and this psalm is all marked up. Verse 13 is circled: “I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” She did.
This one helped get me through postpartum depression after baby number three. “When you hid your face, I was dismayed.” I prayed it so hard.
Memorized this during Lent a few years ago. Full of joyful riches for any occasion. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”
Memorized the first half before giving birth to my oldest. “Many, O Lord my God, are the wonders you have done . . . ; were I to speak and tell of them, they would be too many to declare.” My beautiful daughter was indeed a wonder. She still is.
Memorized as a high schooler. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.” Did I feel guilty about something? No, someone just told me it was an important psalm. Knowing it has served me well over the years, especially for my scholarly work on the psalms during the English Reformation. Everyone wrote a metrical version of this psalm in the sixteenth century, it seems. In the old Book of Common Prayer, morning prayers begin: “O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.”
When my mother died a year ago, my husband and I went together to sit with her body for a while. I asked him to read this psalm. “The length of our days is seventy years—or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.” We cried and prayed, needing these words when we had none of our own.
I still remember the setting of this that we sang in junior high, jagged and syncopated and urgent. “In his hands are the depths of the earth.”
We memorized this in elementary school every year around Thanksgiving: “We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.”
Sang the old Psalter Hymnal version of this at my wedding. We sing it from memory at all family functions: funerals, weddings, ordinary Sunday meals. It’s a multigenerational tradition. “O come, my soul, bless thou the Lord thy maker.”
Not many people love this psalm, but I do. I’m always glad when I get to it in my regular round of psalm-reading. It celebrates the beauty and freedom of righteousness: “I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free.”
Preached a sermon on this psalm in 2011. Evidently it was a sermon I needed, as I continue to think of it often. God is a shomer, a guardian, a watcher—“he will watch over your life.”
Sang the John Rutter setting of this, from the “Requiem,” with my beloved choir at Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa, around 1995. “Out of the depths have I called unto thee, O Lord. O Lord, hear my cry.” Cannot read this psalm without hearing that cello solo.
“[L]ike a weaned child with its mother.” Helped me through the early years of graduate school and teaching. A psalm about humility and trust.
Memorized this one as a teenager too. When God seems far away, this psalm is the answer: “You have searched me and you know me.”
Got me through another period of struggle with depression. As always, the psalmist’s troubled pleas arise from an underlying trust: “I spread out my hands for you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.”
As I consider this inventory, a few things strike me. The long-lasting rewards of memorization, for one. And the way these texts ripen in my spirit over time, coming back to me when I need them in a new stage of life. And gratitude for all those who gave me these gifts, through prayer and study and song, over the decades. Hope I still have a long way to go on this pilgrimage, and I go rejoicing, this prayer book in my hand.
Which psalms would you include in your own memoir of psalms? Let us know by emailing email@example.com; use “Psalms” as the subject line.