455: What’s your favorite Psalm? Billions of people can’t be wrong …

What’s your favorite Psalm?
    More than 2 billion people around the world draw spiritual strength from this ancient collection of hymns. Yesterday, we published an interview with Peter Wallace, the host of the Day1 radio network and author a new book about the enduring power of Psalms.
    So, what’s your favorite?

    I’ll tell you mine. I revealed it in the interview yesterday. It’s Psalm 90, all about the fleeting nature of life and the eternal strength we can draw from God’s creative power. In the middle of the Psalm, at least in the King James Version of the text, the writer reminds us all that “we spend our years as a tale that is told.”
    Pretty natural for a writer to appreciate such a hymn, right?
    I also love this Psalm because it has lots of room to grow with us throughout our lifetimes. I first discovered the Psalm as a high school student and appreciated its provocative lines so much that I memorized the whole thing.
    The Psalm played a major role in my friendship, as a university student in the early 1970s, with the poet Joseph Brodsky. He later won the Nobel prize, but at the point I met him, he was a fragile chain-smoking exile from the Soviet penal system. As it turns out, Brodsky had memorized many Psalms in Russian and English. He repeated Psalms to himself while languishing in Soviet prisons. He was impressed that I knew Psalm 90, one of his favorites. During that school year, he served as a friendly mentor as I was discovering my own vocation as a writer.

    The Psalm has grown with me through the years—and it has grown in my family generation to generation. In 2006, I published a column about the moment I heard the Psalm echoed back to me from my own daughter, Megan. She was in college at the time, spending half a year studying anthropology in Pune, India.
    Perhaps the ancient poet was a parent himself, because he eloquently describes the poignancy of the all-too-rapid pace of our brief human lives, telling God, “A thousand years to You are like a single day; they are like yesterday, already gone.”
    The poet asks God: “Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” Then he adds a prayer that anyone who has seen a bit of life would understand, asking God politely to at least “make us glad as many days as we have suffered affliction.”
    I had no idea that Megan recalled this Psalm. But her e-mail began: “Dad, over the past few weeks, I got to feeling that life really is so short and fleeting. My Baba, my ‘father’ in my host family here in India, is an older man and I’ve had several conversations with him about his ailments and how he isn’t able to do the things he used to do.
    “That’s in such direct contrast with my own life, where I feel I have the potential to do almost anything, and have so many different options and opportunities.
    “So I got on this train of thought about mortality. I began to feel: There are so many things to explore and learn and there’s only one little lifetime we are given!
    “I opened my Bible. At first, I turned to a random Psalm, hoping I’d be inspired. But that wasn’t quite so. Then, I remembered this Psalm you’ve kept reading over the years. …
    “I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember the exact words. But then I read it. And it exactly articulated everything I was feeling and had been thinking about.
    “Right after this, I finally got around to finishing one of those letters I’ve been meaning to send home telling someone how much their support has meant to me. You know, Dad, life is too short to put off until later telling people that you care!
    “I just wanted to tell you that, over here in India, I finally understand why you’ve always loved that Psalm.
    “Love, Megan.”
    I’ve made a note to myself that, at least once each year I would reread that Psalm and unfold my copy of Megan’s 2006 Email and reread it, as well.
    Thank you for sharing this year’s reading with me.

    Now, what’s your favorite Psalm?


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