274: On Yom Kippur, Psalms’ Spiritual Power Shines Forth

oday is Yom Kippur and many of our Jewish neighbors have switched off their computers today, so we’re continuing our series honoring the Jewish High Holidays by turning to a Christian writer for a day.
   We have a special treat for you — a reflection from Greg Garrett’s new book, “Stories from the Edge.”
   Click on the book title or cover to jump to our review of Greg’s book and buy a copy, if you wish. Regular ReadTheSpirit readers will recall our earlier coverage of Greg’s work. (And, if you “Care to Read More” about Greg, you’ll find a number of links below.)
   Greg’s new book is a spiritual memoir about his work in Texas hospitals as a chaplain while studying as a seminary student toward ordination in the Episcopal Church. One of the central connections with Judaism in Greg’s book involves his use of the Psalms, the most-read portion of the Hebrew Scriptures around the world.
   In an Email to me, as we prepared today’s story, Greg said: “My book is almost diagnostic in talking about people who are suffering and people dealing with grief. Where we go wrong in our grief comes from where we go wrong in choosing — or not choosing — our foundational stories. Where we go right comes from finding a story of faith that accommodates suffering.”
   If you’re familiar with the Psalms — these ancient hymns directed toward God — then you can see already why the Psalms are such an important part of Greg’s book.

   This is a very timely theme. Another fascinating book on Psalms released this fall is “Poets on the Psalms,” a collection of reflections by poets edited by poet Lynn Domina, who teaches at State University of New York at Delhi. (Click on the title or the cover of that book to jump to our review.)
   In describing the purpose of her new book, Lynn writes that the Psalms have remained relevant for men and women from many backgrounds:
   Psalms address a lot of the experiences we all share, whether someone was alive in Israel thousands of years ago or is alive today in 21st-century America. We all feel fear, and we all walk through the valley of the shadow of death, as the speaker in Psalm 23 describes it.
   At some point, we all feel as if God has abandoned us, just like Psalm 22 says, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” We all have enemies, even if we don’t like to admit it. But we also all have experiences of transcendence, when we stand in awe of creation, similar to the feelings expressed in Psalm 104. As much as day-to-day existence has changed over the centuries, people still mourn, they still get angry, they still feel overwhelmed with joy.

Then, here is a brief sample from Greg’s book about reading Psalms with the men and women he met in hospitals:

    On one of my visits with Pamela, a devout woman with an inoperable brain tumor, she asked me to read to her. On that occasion, I felt strongly led — perhaps because of the opening line, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place” — to read her Psalm 90. …
   Pamela had struggled with the seriousness of her illness, with her fears, with her desire to remain in the hospital, and with her desire to do God’s will, whatever that will might be. I often read Psalms to her and to other people. As I read further with Pamela, we discovered together that many of these things were addressed by the psalm:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
  in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
  or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
  from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn us back to dust,
  and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”
For a thousand years in your sight
  are like yesterday when it is past,
  or like a watch in the night.
You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
  like grass that is renewed in the morning;
  in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
  in the evening it fades and withers. …
For all our days pass away under your wrath;
  our years come to an end like a sigh.
  The days of our life are 70 years,
  or perhaps 80, if we are strong;
  even then their span is only toil and trouble;
  they are soon gone, and we fly away.
    (Psalm 90:1-10)

   Only by a stretch of the interpretive imagination can we suggest that anything like affirmation and healing come in these verses, yet as I read, and after, Pamela closed her eyes, nodded her head, and wept. To hear these words — that God is God and that we are only human, that our days are limited, and that perhaps the most we can hope for is wisdom to know that — in some unaccountable way, these terrifically challenging lines soothed her.
   When we talked about this psalm, she said that it gave her courage to let go, if letting go was required, and to struggle hard, if that was what she needed to do. The final lines of the psalm — verse 17, “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands; O prosper the work of our hands!” — about the work we are capable of doing spoke to her about continuing to do her part for as long as she was able. These are words about our faithful relationship to a faithful God, and our faithfulness to the tasks we have been given to do.
   Everything else is out of our control. …

   Elie Wiesel tells of how, when he was 15, he was among religious Jews in Auschwitz who had cried out for help and yet found no relief from their suffering. At last, three rabbis put God on trial for neglect, for failing to live up to the covenant with the Jews. Speakers on both sides presented their cases, God was excoriated and defended, and at last, by vote of the assembly, God was found guilty.
   And then they all, prosecutors and defenders, like David praying after the death of his child, went off to observe Shabbat.
   God had not answered their prayers, they all remained in deadly danger, and most of them would die in that horrible place, yet they continued to pray.
   How many of us would demonstrate that sort of faithfulness?

SO ENDS this brief sample from Greg’s new book.

   Greg on Themes in Summer Movies: This piece from May looks at some of the summer blockbusters, including “Iron Man.” Greg talks about and spiritual themes that inspire him when he goes to the movies.
   Outline of a Class Using Greg’s Book on Comics: If you’re intrigued by the growing popularity of comics and graphic novels — and you’re thinking of organizing a small-group class on spiritual themes — check out these ideas we published earlier this year.
   Conversation With Greg on Comics and Movies: Here’s an in-depth Q and A with Greg about religious inspiration he draws from comics and movies. This interview is worth checking out, partly, because Greg explains the crucial role that the movie, “Pulp Fiction,” played in his own conversion experience.

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   (Published in the ReadTheSpirit online magazine.)

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