On learning the Psalms

This summer I preached a sermon on Psalm 51 as part of a summer series my church was doing on the Psalms. You can listen to it here.

As part of the series, Mark Fox, our pastor challenged us to learn one of the psalms. As I was preaching on Ps. 51, I worked at memorizing that one. This has been particularly fruitful for me, especially as Psalm 51 is one of the great Psalms of confession. I have used it to focus and guide my own prayer life. Often I have said the psalm to God as I have taken my morning jog.

Then about six weeks ago, I read Mark Buchanan’s Spiritual Rhythm: Being With Jesus Every Season of the Soul. In this book Buchanan uses the metaphor of the seasons (Winter, Spring, Summer & Fall) to speak of the various seasons we each go through in our Spiritual life and suggests how in each season, we can cultivate our relationship with God in each season.

In the season which Buchanan calls Fall (colder season, but also the time of Harvest) he writes:

After my winter I knew I needed more. I needed more fat on my frame for the next time I found myself in a cold land with little shelter. So I began to memorize the Bible. I don’t mean bits and pieces of it, favorite verses to suck on like lozenges when my throat was a tad dry. Not that that isn’t useful. But I never found it much. It was for me a pocket of loose change, good for tokens and such, but not something you go trading with. (176)

Buchanan then goes on to describe memorizing Hebrews 12, the Sermon on the Mount, Romans 8 and Phillipians (177). He also makes passing references in the body of his text to Psalms he has memorized.

I decided to take up Buchanan’s challenge to memorize Scripture and since I already got started with the Psalms, I decided to continue there. My insane impossible goal is to memorize fifteen Psalms a year for ten years (which would mean I would learn the whole book of Psalms). This may not be attainable, but its worth a try and at the very least I’ll memorize a bunch of the Psalms. This has several benefits:

1. The Psalms teaches us to pray. In this I am just repeating what I learned from reading people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Eugene Peterson.
2. The Psalms speaks honestly about the human condition in relationship to God. There are Psalms that are pure praise songs (Ps. 100) and others which are full of sorrow and dread (Psalm 88). Walter Brueggemann in his Message of the Psalms usefully categorizes the Psalms as Psalms of Orientation (confidence in God), Disorientation (but there is a lot of crap we have to deal with) and New Orientation (looking back to God in the midst of our crap). [The parentheses in previous sentence are completely my own so don’t go blaming Bruggemann for them :)]. Therefore learning the Psalms should help me have words, no matter what Spiritual season I find myself in.
3. Psalms are the most referred to book of the OT in the NT, especially on the lips of Jesus. Thus learning the Psalms helps me enter more fully into New Testament Spirituality.
4. I have an M.Div and feel called to Pastoral Ministry. Because of the Psalms breadth and depth, they are a treasure trove for pastoral care and direction. That is, learning the Psalms will aid me to more fully live into my vocation as a pastor.

And so I have begun. Thus far I have memorized Psalm 31, 51 and 131. Which is a good start. My plan is to do all the Psalms ending in 1 this year and move up sequentially by number in the following years (that way I don’t have to tackle Psalm 119 for 9 years).

The idea is not just rote memorization, but to really learn these Psalms.

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