The Gaping Hole in the Modern Missions Movement {part 2}

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Thanks for joining us for Part 2! If you missed yesterday’s post, you can read it here.

Here are some resources for filling in the gaping whole. This is pretty much the opposite of an exhaustive list, so please feel free to share any books, music, videos, etc. that have helped you dive into the Psalms, either personally, organizationally, or congregationally.

Just put the titles or links in the comment section below. Also, if you have developed any resources for using the Psalms in your context, please feel free to share them with the community here. Thanks so much!

 

A note for those working in a Muslim context
I serve in a Buddhist/animist context, which maybe explains why I have not studied Islam to any depth. Therefore, please consider this a request for info and certainly not didactic.

Recently, a friend serving in a Muslim context told me, “My Muslim friends are VERY resistant to studying Jesus or the New Testament in general; but the Psalms are much less threatening.”  He went on to explain that in his context, the word used in the Bible for the Psalms is the word for poetry, which his friends absolutely love. He went on to say that many of his friends had been through tremendous suffering and things they considered extremely shameful. We discussed the possibility of beginning with Poetry. Specifically, the Poetry that discusses pain and shame and points to Jesus. Martin Luther referred to the Psalms as “the little Bible,” so maybe it would be a good place to start!

Would something like that work in your context? Perhaps you’re doing this already. In any case, I’d love to hear your ideas and experiences!

Now, on to some quotes!

 

The Case for the Psalms: Why They are Essential, N.T. Wright

“The celebration is wild and uninhibited; the misery is deep and horrible. One moment we are chanting, perhaps clapping our hands in time, even stamping our feet. . . . The next moment we have tears running down our cheeks, and we want the earth to open and swallow us.”

“The Psalms not only insist that we are called to live at the intersection of God’s space and our space, of heaven and earth, to be (in other words) Temple people. They call us to live at the intersection of sacred space, the Temple and the holy land that surrounds it, and the rest of human space, the world where idolatry and injustice still wreak their misery.”

“The Psalms are among the oldest poems in the world, and they still rank with any poetry in any culture, ancient or modern, from anywhere in the world. They are full of power and passion, horrendous misery and unrestrained jubilation, tender sensitivity and powerful hope. Anyone at all whose heart is open to new dimensions of human experience, anyone who loves good writing, anyone who wants a window into the bright lights and dark corners of the human soul – anyone open to the beautiful expression of a larger vision of reality should react to these poems like someone who hasn’t had a good meal for a week or two. It’s all here.”

“The Psalms are the steady, sustained subcurrent of healthy Christian living.”

“Scripture is not simply a reference book to which we turn to look up correct answers – though it’s full of those when we need them. Scripture is, at its heart, the great story that we sing in order not just to learn it with our heads but to become part of it through and through, the story that in turn becomes part of us.”

“If the Psalms provide a sense of sacred space, that space is where celebration and sorrow are held together within the powerful love and presence of the one God.” 

 

The Psalms: the Prayer Book of the Bible, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian church.”

 “The Psalter impregnated the life of early Christianity.”

 “That can be very painful, to want to speak with God and not to be able to.” [Bonhoeffer saw this moment as the best time to pray the Psalms.]

“There is in the Psalms no quick and easy resignation to suffering. There is always struggle, anxiety, doubt. God’s righteousness which allows the pious to be met by misfortune but the godless to escape free, even God’s good and gracious will, is undermined. His behavior is too difficult to grasp. But even in the deepest hopelessness God alone remains the one addressed. . . . He sets out to do battle against God for God.”

“If I am guilty, why does God not forgive me? If I am not guilty, why does he not bring my misery to an end and thus demonstrate my innocence to my enemies? There are no theoretical answers in the Psalms to all these questions. As there are none in the New Testament. The only real answer is Jesus Christ.”

 

Billy Graham

“I used to read five psalms every day – that teaches me how to get along with God. Then I read a chapter of Proverbs every day and that teaches me how to get along with my fellow man.” 

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Martin Luther

The Psalter promises Christ’s death and resurrection so clearly – and pictures his kingdom and the condition and nature of all Christendom – that it might well be called a little Bible. In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible.”

 

Further Resources

The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms, Tim Keller

Songs from the Heart: Emotions in the Psalms, a fantastic article by Richard Vincent

Here’s one way to combine the Psalms with Discovery Bible Studies and inner healing ministries. You can read more on this method here.

The Psalms: A Reentry Handbook, by Robynn Bliss

A devotional journey through Psalm 13, developed for a two-hour quiet retreat for overseas workers in Cambodia: Finding a song in Psalm 13

A wonderful song (and story) from Psalm 84

Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (online edition)

Out of the Pit and Back Again, (a reflection on Psalm 40), by Jennifer May

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Please feel free to share more resources below. Thanks!

The Gaping Hole in the Modern Missions Movement {part 1}

I think something’s missing.

It’s something that Jesus loved (and studied) a whole lot.

It’s missing because it doesn’t really fit into our Discovery Bible story sets. It doesn’t seem to add value to our NGOs or leadership trainings. It doesn’t offer an immediate return on investment or accelerate the planting and growing of churches.

It’s the Psalms. We’re missing the Psalms, and it’s hurting us.

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I grew up reading the Psalms. Our family did the “read a Psalm and then add 30 until you can’t go any further” thing. For example, on the 12th of the month we’d read Psalm 12 and Psalm 42 and Psalm 72 and so on. It was boring and predictable, but also transformational.

I began re-reading the Psalms in earnest about a year ago. I bought a commentary. I started reading books and articles. I began teaching them, singing them, and preaching them. And I started noticing their conspicuous absence.

And I’ve come to believe that my country of origin (America) and my country of destination (Cambodia) desperately need the depth and breadth of the Psalms. We need more Psalms in our families and our agencies. We need more Psalms in our church plants and Bible schools. We need to steep our discipleship strategies in the Psalms. (Many of our more liturgical siblings never really stopped reading the Psalms, and for this portion of their orthopraxy, I’m very grateful.)

But we don’t spend much time in the Psalms. We really don’t. The prayer book of the Bible, the book most oft-quoted by Jesus himself, gets relegated to the background with an occasional nod to the pastoral Psalm 23 and a sideways glance at the beautiful Psalm 139. But that’s not enough.

Full immersion is needed.

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Making the Case for the Psalms
We need the Psalms; not because the Psalms will teach us how to be super Christians, but because the Psalms will teach us how to be human Christians. I know that sounds silly, but there are a lot of dissociated folks who are trying to follow the Son of Man divorced from their own earthy humanity.

The Psalms teach us what it means to live and breathe and feel and follow. Here. Now. What does it look like to follow Jesus and still FEEL all this stuff? Life’s a freaking roller coaster. Just like the Psalms.

Author N.T. Wright describes the Psalter Coaster like this:

The celebration is wild and uninhibited; the misery is deep and horrible. One moment we are chanting, perhaps clapping our hands in time, even stamping our feet. … The next moment we have tears running down our cheeks, and we want the earth to open and swallow us.

Sounds a bit like life. Basically, the Psalms identify (and make allowance for) our humanity. In fact, the Psalms allow more raw humanity than many churches. Again, Wright illuminates:

The Psalms not only insist that we are called to live at the intersection of God’s space and our space, of heaven and earth, to be (in other words) Temple people. They call us to live at the intersection of sacred space, the Temple and the holy land that surrounds it, and the rest of human space, the world where idolatry and injustice still wreak their misery.

How do we live at that intersection, connecting worlds, without being ripped apart? The Psalms will show us.

 

The Full Spectrum of Emotions
The Psalms speak to core human needs and feelings without resorting to cliché. There are more than enough platitudes floating around already; we need the Psalms to teach us how to care about people without adding to the detritus.

What emotions is a believer allowed to have? What feelings are against the rules? The Psalms show us, and the answer is shocking: they’re pretty much all allowed. That’s not to say that all actions are allowed, but pretty much all the feelings are. In fact, the Psalms teach us how not to avoid uncomfortable feelings.
Whatever the emotion, keep talking to God. The Psalmists sure did. We are to pray with (maybe because of) our uncomfortable emotions. We enter our prayer closets with all of our hearts. There’s no need to cut pieces off before initiating a conversation with our Papa. We don’t have to “make ourselves presentable” for God. Jesus did that already.
Many people have a hard time identifying and allowing emotions; some countries and cultures (and denominations) struggle with this more than others. But wherever we’re from, the Psalms draw back the curtain and help us to see things as they really are.
The Psalms provide emotional nomenclature.

Furthermore, the Psalms can help people to acknowledge the presence of pain, an important first step towards healing.  This is especially crucial in honor/shame cultures; the Psalms give the reader permission to feel negative emotions: “Well hey, he felt this and he’s in the Bible! Maybe it’s OK if I feel it too.”

Once, after watching a young believer read a Psalm that discussed “unacceptable” feelings, I simply asked, “Have you ever felt that?” The resulting heart-level conversation would not have happened without the ice-breaking action of the Psalm.

 

Letting Others Make the Case for the Psalms
Are you tired of listening to me talk about the Psalms? How about these guys?

Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian church.”  Bonhoeffer went so far as to say that “The Psalter impregnated the life of early Christianity.” — Dietriech Bonhoeeffer

I used to read five psalms every day – that teaches me how to get along with God. Then I read a chapter of Proverbs every day and that teaches me how to get along with my fellow man.”   — Billy Graham

The Psalter promises Christ’s death and resurrection so clearly – and pictures his kingdom and the condition and nature of all Christendom – that it might well be called a little Bible. In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible.” — Martin Luther

And yet we hardly ever read or teach or preach them! Could we change that, please?

 

Letting Jesus Make the Case for the Psalms
You know, Jesus really loved the Psalms. In fact, Jesus quotes it more than any other book in the Old Testament. These are the four Old Testament books that Jesus quoted the most:

#4 Exodus
#3 Isaiah
#2 Deuteronomy
#1 Psalms

Kind of makes me think they’re important. But here’s the kicker, when Jesus quoted the Psalms, it was almost ALWAYS in a difficult situation. That is to say, when Jesus was in a stressful situation, he fell back on the Psalms. Here are some examples:

  1. Jesus outwits angry, accusing, scheming, educated guys (aka Pharisees) with the Psalms on several occasions (Ps 8:2, 110:1; Mt 21:16, 22:44; Mk 12:36, 14:62; Lk 20:42–43).
  1. He quotes the twenty-second Psalm while dying on the cross (Ps 22:1; Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34).
  1. Jesus is hated without cause, which he says the Psalms foretold (Ps 35:19, 69:4; Jn 15:25).
  1. He quotes the Psalms when talking about his betrayal (Ps 41:9; Jn 13:18).
  1. When the Jews want to stone him for claiming to be God, he responds with a line from the Psalms (Ps 82:6; Jn 10:34).
  1. He quotes Psalm 110 when Pilate asks if he is the son of God (Ps 110:1; Mt 26:64).
  1. After having his authority challenged, he quotes Psalms to the chief priests and elders, calling himself the chief cornerstone (Ps 118:22–23; Matt 21:42; Mk 12:10; Luke 20:17).
  1. He references the Psalms when foretelling Jerusalem’s destruction (Ps 118:26; Matt 23:39; Lk 13:35).

So basically, when Jesus quoted the Psalms, good things weren’t happening. In stressful situations, when he was under duress or attack, Jesus referred back to the Psalms. Maybe that’s when we need to remember the Psalms too.

And for what it’s worth, it’s not a great idea to pack for a trip after the trip started. (Although, with this audience, I’m sure some of you have tried!) You know life’s going to be crazy. You know it’s not all going to be smooth sailing. Pack your bags now. Read the Psalms now. Soak in the Psalms now.

Repeated exposure to the Psalms etches into the hearts of young believers (and old ones too) a Biblical response to pain and suffering. The Psalms show the new way.

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Theologically, we need the Psalms.
Emotionally, we need the Psalms.

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Looking for Balance
The Psalms balance Paul’s head with David’s heart. We tend to idolize Paul, valuing an intellectual (rational) approach that prizes productivity and aims at “finishing the task.” But if we’re not careful, we become automatons on an assembly line to salvation. We show up, clock in, put a rivet here and a prayer there. The Psalms protect us from heartless evangelism and cold workaholism, modeling integration and allowing the mind and heart to be simultaneously present.

The Psalmists weren’t scaredy cats, but they were sometimes scared. They weren’t sobbing piles of emotion, but they sometimes cried. They weren’t angry men, but they sometimes demanded sovereign revenge. They got depressed. They sang. They wept. They danced.
And they prayed.
Closing Argument
We’re working in hard places in dangerous times; we need the Psalms.
We’re working among people who’ve suffered tremendously and endured courageously; they need the Psalms.
Jesus knew the Psalms and used them. A lot. So should we.
How? Read them. Sing them. Pray them.
Especially when you have no words to pray, pray the Psalms. Have you ever been there? Wordless but hurting? Bonhoeffer said, “That can be very painful, to want to speak with God and not to be able to.”
We need the Psalms to be deeply planted and carefully cultivated. In Part 2 we’ll look at some quotes and resources to help you as you journey into the Psalms. We’ll also discuss what this might look like in a Muslim context.
Until then, check out the links below, and maybe go read a Psalm.
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The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms, Tim Keller

The Case for the Psalms: Why They are Essential, N.T. Wright

Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Out of the Pit and Back Again

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What is a psalm but a human emotion, poured into words? Perhaps it is a heartbreak, as in Psalm 137; or a rage, as in 109. Perhaps it is a teaching, as in 119, or a shout of praise, as in 145. But perhaps it is a desperate wail from the pit, as in Psalm 40. In the beginning, David speaks:

“I waited patiently for the LORD, and He inclined to me, and heard my cry. He also brought me up out of a terrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my steps. He has put a new song in my mouth—praise to our God; many will see it and fear, and trust in the LORD.”

The terrible pit is a sort of cistern —a low place, in the dark, with a thick, viscous layer of sludge at the bottom. It is the “miry clay.” The clearest Biblical description of this kind of mud tells us that it took 30 men to hoist Jeremiah out of the muck of the king’s cistern. It was a trapping, cloying, sucking mud that left its victim suffocating and immobile in the darkness.

David sees his struggle like this. He feels helpless, lost, forgotten, stuck, walled in, surrounded, in the dark, sinking, trapped and smothered, with no way out. No one knows what David is struggling with, and he feels forgotten. Basically, he’s a missionary.

God doesn’t forget David, however; instead He bends down, hears David’s cry, and descends to the pit. God hears David in the place of forgetting and reverses his situation. Instead of a cry for help, a new song bursts from his mouth—praise to his God.

The psalm soars higher and higher as David reflects on God’s goodness, the incredible number not only of His works on his behalf, but also His thoughts toward him (4-5). He steps out and shares who God is and what He has done, and he makes an incredible claim:

“I do not restrain my lips . . . I have not hidden Your righteousness in my heart; I have declared Your faithfulness and Your salvation; I have not concealed Your lovingkindness and Your truth from the great assembly” (9-10).

What a crescendo! What a testimony! But then the psalm takes a sudden turn. In verse 11, David pleads for God’s mercies. In verse 12 he says, “My iniquities have overtaken me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of my head; therefore my heart fails me.” Wait, what? What happened? How is David drowning again?

What has happened? Now David is so ashamed that he can’t even pick his head up. He wallows in the guilt of uncountable sins and feels that he has to beg for mercy. He describes himself as “poor and needy” (17). He’s back in the pit, waiting again, right where he started. He cries out for deliverance and ends not on a resolution but on a prayer for God to hurry up and rescue him. Again.

This universal Christian experience can be especially intense for foreign workers and ministry leaders. The horrible isolation rings true; it’s easy to feel forgotten in a foreign land, alone with the terrible responsibility of presenting a good testimony—perhaps the only testimony people will ever see. On the other hand, sharing the gospel is a high. Proclaiming who Jesus is, and seeing a glimmer of understanding in someone’s eye, provokes an incredible feeling of joy, awe, and humility at being included in God’s work to touch souls.

But. What happens when the new believer returns to old habits, or you discover that they had just gone underground with their sin, instead of repenting, or when the Bible study you’ve invested in falls apart, when your children hate the new country, or when illness takes your parent, and you can’t go home to say goodbye? What happens when you find yourself totally discouraged, not knowing why you bother leaving the house? What happens when a sin you thought you had kicked rises up to bite you again? What happens when you know better, but you still end up in the pit?

There’s no resolution in this psalm. David feels no joy or gladness. In verse 16 he can only talk about other people magnifying God: “Let all those who seek You rejoice and be glad in You; let such as love Your salvation say continually, ‘The LORD be magnified!’”

Isn’t that so often the story? You know that someone, somewhere, is starting churches. But it isn’t you. Somebody’s seeing people respond to the gospel and make genuine life changes. Some other missionary catches the language quickly and goes zipping along, making relationships, and then there’s this other missionary who gets along famously with everybody on the local team, and you’re left out. You see small gains, but it’s definitely two steps forward, one step backward, every day.

Thus, David is poor and needy. He’s a king (exceedingly well-funded from the home country, as it were), but he lacks. The need is in his heart, not in his pockets; but who sees that? The one thought he clings to is, “Yet the LORD thinks upon me” (17a). God sees. God really does see.

More than that, He empathizes. And it’s only in the quiet place, alone like Hagar with the Lord-who-sees-me, where this really hits, because the truth is that David’s God stepped one day into David’s shoes. He worked for three years with incredibly thick-headed national partners who just didn’t get the mission. He endured the brokenness of this world, the betrayal and loss, the misunderstandings, and the being put onto a pedestal one minute and crucified the next. He dealt with scheming, jealous religious leaders and all the irritations of a foreign bureaucracy.

He knows what the pit feels like. He gets it, and He “thinks upon” His struggling children who also deal with it. The temptation in the pit is to give up and go home, to assume that you are useless and will never touch people for God’s kingdom, because you struggle. I can only echo Paul, from 1 Corinthians 4:3-5—today is always too soon to judge.

Like David, we all live in the unknown of the present. David didn’t know his legacy would include Jesus. He didn’t know that people across the world would be reading translations of his poetry. He had no clue what an encouragement he would be in his own transparency. God has a wonderful way of turning the craziest parts of our life into something good. We just can’t evaluate that today. Instead we must hang in there and trust Him, even in the pit.

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jmayAn inveterate adventurer and acceptable-risk-taker, Jennifer May grew up as an MK in Zimbabwe, Africa, and migrated with her family back to the United States at 11. “I’m sorry, I grew up in Africa,” is her favorite excuse for not getting pop culture references from the 90s. A lifelong passion for missions brought Jennifer to Canada for three years, and now has her serving in Mexico, where she occasionally rides bulls. She has co-written a book that uses Chronological Bible Storying to help young people understand their identity according to the Bible, available here. You can reach her at jenniferrmay@gmail.com.

Singing Songs of Joy in a Foreign Land

Psalm 137

In Psalm 137 the song-writer gives us a picture of a people displaced, in exile. They are by a river and they are weeping. They hang up their musical instruments and those around them shout at them to sing songs, songs of joy. Pull up your bootstraps people! Sing songs of joy. It’s not that bad!”

But the Psalmist disagrees. He says this: “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?”

Many missionaries, expatriates, and third culture kids have uttered the same words. How can I sing? How can I praise? I’m displaced. I don’t like where I live. I hurt inside and no one on the outside knows. I don’t fit. I feel like an alien among humans. How can I sing?

Perhaps our unspoken fear is that If we learn to sing songs of joy in this new place, this new land, then we will forget the old, we will lose our identity, all that we know, all that is familiar. As one person put it: “I wanted to preserve my identity, to hold dear the soil in which my roots are settled, to Never Forget who I Am. After all — my identity has come at such a high cost.”

Yet this is the beauty of a God of movement, a God of place. He is not limited by geography. He created time and space, he created place, he created our place. He is the author of our identity. We are beloved characters in a story that will go on forever, a story where “every chapter is better than the one before.”* Our physical location may change, but our song can still go on. The song may change, it may become more of a song of remembrance, but it can still be a song of joy.

God does not ask us to forget. He knows that even as the missionary packs their suitcase and ventures into the unknown, there is much they need to remember, there are roots that are critically important. He knows that from birth the third culture kid was raised between worlds, that those worlds shaped who they are — not only physically and emotionally, but also spiritually. He simply asks us to move forward and trust him. Trust him with our shifting loyalties to place, trust that he will allow us to use the gifts that were so naturally used in the past, trust that the hidden talents will not be wasted. Trust that culture in all it’s complexity, and idioms with all their nuance can be learned. Trust that it is possible to love more than one place at a time, to sing songs of joy in both.

Trust that he will guide, he will protect, he will show us a way, will teach us to sing songs of joy.

And that is my prayer for you, for me in 2015: that wherever we are, we will learn to sing songs of joy in a foreign land.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.*

Psalm 137: 1-6

Author’s Note – this essay appears in the book Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging by Marilyn R. Gardner in the section on Grief & Loss.

*From The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis