Drinking Down the Psalms

Over 2,500 years ago, a young Jewish singer songwriter was brave enough to write about the stuff that most churchie folks would keep to themselves or to their therapist. “I am weary with my moaning. Every night I flood my bed with tears.” He put it to music. He wrote out the parts. He sent it to the choirmaster. He made it public.

And I’m ever glad he did. Those psalms saved my life. 

When I was 12 years old, I wanted to die. I’d sit in my room and cry and cry and cry, thinking of ways to kill myself. It was too much change for me, moving from a small Tennessee town to a big town in Texas, in a body that was turning from kid to grownup. The teachers at the inner-city school in Texarkana didn’t know me. They didn’t dote over me like the ones in Dickson did. I had a locker in the hall below the locker of a guy who dressed like Michael Jackson — he wore this cool red, leather Beat It jacket with all the silver zippers — and every time I knelt down to get my books, his hair product dripped on my hands. The smell of it coupled with my changing hormones made me gag, and I wished I could go back to Tennessee, where everyone knew my name.

One day, instead of thinking up ways to commit suicide, I knelt by my bed and opened my Bible. Right there in the middle, I discovered David’s Psalms.

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?”

“I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart.”

“The Lord is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit.”

Here was a songwriter who knew what I was feeling. Here I learned that I wasn’t alone. 

In the summer after that first year at the new school, something changed. A picture on the wall taken when I was ten grabbed my attention. It seemed to say, “This is you. Happy you. Now be yourself. Get after it.”

The next year, when I walked to my orange locker in the hall at the school, I strutted. No more gagging. I smiled at everyone, including the dude in the Michael Jackson jacket. I remember the song that played in my head, a tune by Matthew Wilder:

Ain’t nothin’ gonna break-a my stride
Nobody gonna slow me down, oh no
I got to keep on movin’

That year, the school gave me the citizenship award. And for that, I’d like to thank God, King David, Michael Jackson, and Matthew Wilder.

This week, I started listening to a new book about the Psalms. It’s called Open and Unafraid, written by W. David O. Taylor. In the foreword, the late Eugene Peterson writes about his own connection to the Psalms. Guess how old Peterson was when he discovered them. He was 12, just like I was. And his family had moved across town, away from everyone who was familiar to him, just like I had. Here again, in the midst of these dark days of pandemic, I couldn’t help but feel that I wasn’t alone, and I thanked God for Eugene Peterson and David Taylor.

I’m reading the Psalms again, straight through. I got to the fourth one and paused because the words met me in this sad and angry time of uncertainty and isolation. I wrote out my own version, and the process of writing it was good for my soul. Maybe this will become a new pandemic habit. I hope so.

It’s okay to be angry about all
the things that are wrong: the pain, the sickness,
the staying at home, the economy,
the leaders who toot their own crooked horns.
Be angry. Get mad. It’s okay, really.
Don’t hurt folks, though. And don’t beat yourself up. 
Be angry and do not sin. Put your trust
in the One who puts more joy in the heart
than dollars printed with Caesar’s image.
For the Lord looks upon your tense muscles.
He leans in to listen—he listens well.
The Lord is the one who will keep me safe.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures
Yawning, happy, relaxed. Rest easy now.

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