For everything there is a season,
and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away.
– Ecclesiastes 3:1,5 –
I still have John Piper books on my bookcase.
He prayed for me at a conference once. He put his hand on my shoulder and cried with me, and prayed for healing and hope. I double-underlined whole paragraphs in his books. His preaching made my heart sing.
I still have a playlist on Spotify called “L’Abri.”
I stayed at that Christian study community, founded by Schaeffer in the 60’s, and I found Jesus again for the first time. We cleaned that old Manor house together, and we argued about the Trinity and laid bricks in walkways, and took long walks through English fields and watched spring burst up out of the earth. I learned how to be still for a minute. I felt loved for who I was, even when I was terrible.
I still visit my old evangelical church.
It was the first church I visited when I landed in Atlanta. We sat in a circle in my community group: married, single, liberalAF, conservativeAF, gay, straight, Biblical innerancists, people who didn’t believe in hell. We drank good bourbon and shared prayer requests, and cried for each other and with each other. In church service, I read the liturgy and Scripture – my queer self up on stage at that little evangelical church, reading Romans out loud to the congregation. I served and was served. I loved and was beloved.
Meanwhile, L’Abri carries on fighting old culture wars against abortion, transgender folk, Biblical inerrancy. John Piper and Desiring God continue to say terrible things about women, mental health, and the Bible. My old church continues to wrestle with politics, women in ministry, gay folks in a non-affirming setting.
Why are you all so angry, people ask us sometime. Why don’t you ignore them.
Well, certainly bad theology can’t go unchecked. And certainly there are women, people of color, people who struggle with mental illness, and LGBTQ folks, who need to be reminded that these organizations may be powerful but they do not have the final say. There’s a place to push back.
But people aren’t just asking why we’re pushing back. They’re asking why our emotions are so raw. Why are you so – angry.
Maybe we are angry because we are not really sure how grieve properly. We loved something deeply, and it is dead now. The old thing has died, but the new thing hasn’t come alive yet. We are hanging around the old people, the old stories, the old ways of being, because we aren’t really sure how to move on. The old thing was good. Until it wasn’t.
We are living in Holy Saturday, after the Crucifixion but before the Resurrection. And we don’t know how to leave the tomb. We still have grieving to do. And we don’t want to leave until we see the Risen Christ.
I think the Psalms, and Walter Brueggemann, can help us in this in-between place of death and resurrection.
Brueggemann suggested in 1980 (leaning heavily on Ricoeur) that instead of our old categories for the psalms (laments, hymns, royal psalms, etc) that we split the Psalms into three types – psalms of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation.
The psalms of orientation are the most basic psalms – they’re “not the most interesting,” Brueggemann confessions, and they have a distinct “lack of tension” [The Psalms and the Life of Faith, 10]. There are creation songs, cheerful hymns, life-lessons packaged in pleasant lyrics. These are the psalms for people whose lives are going just spiffy, thanks very much, and they don’t have much to report but thankfulness for a good harvest and a reiteration of old ethical prosperity gospel sayings like “the early bird gets the worm!” and “God helps those who help themselves!” Brueggemann puts the book of Proverbs in this category too – it is full of “undisturbed, uncritical equilibrium,” and, when Brueggemann is feeling spicey about the psalms of orientation, he notes that they are “a not very interesting collection of cliches” .
But what happens when the collection of cliches falls short? When the aphorisms don’t work? When the wicked aren’t punished, but you are suffering? When the perfect world folds in on itself?
These are the psalms of total collapse.
These are the psalms of disorientation.
That experience of radical dissonance is what is presented to us in the laments. They are speeches of surprised dismay and disappointment, for the speaker has never expected this to happen to him or her. They are fresh utterances, sharp ejaculations by people accustomed to either the smooth songs of equilibrium or to not saying anything at all because things are “all right.” They are the shrill speeches of those who suddenly discover that they are trapped and the water is rising and the sun may not come up tomorrow in all its benevolence. And we are betrayed!” .
These psalms run the gauntlet from anger to despair, from longing to go back to normalcy to the fresh brokenheartedness of realizing that you never can go home. These psalms “speak venom against God, enemies, parents, and everyone else, venom that they did not know they had in their bodies…The facade of convention and well being has at last been penetrated. The beast is permitted an appearance” .
But why are you so angry, the pastor asks over coffee. But why are you so angry, a friend asks over the phone.
But why are you so angry, someone must have asked the Psalmist.
Because something was broken and can’t be fixed. Because “home” isn’t home anymore.
I think most of us who grew up evangelical or fundamentalist have found ourselves stuck in a rut of disorientation psalms. I don’t say rut as a blameworthy thing – perhaps “pit” is a better word, to borrow from the psalmists’ themselves.
When I read Brueggemann’s words about the shift from orientation (everything is dandy! We’re all homogenous! The Word of God is clear! Good and evil are black and white!) to disorientation (WTF is this bullshit. Why is suffering so random. Why were the orientation psalms lying to me. “I am betrayed”), I hear my people.
We’re still hanging around the tomb, torn between anger that we were lied to, grief that the old thing is dead, and longing to somehow go back in time to when everything was solid, normal, “good.” We are “inclined to look back,” Brueggemann muses, “to grasp for old equilibriums, to wish for them, and to deny that they are gone” .
And to add on to this pain, we carry shame, because some of us have internalized the tut-tutting, and when they told us that our anger is bad and must be ignored or fixed, we believed them. We feel guilt that we haven’t gotten out of this pit on our own. We feel shame that we are still lingering at the tomb of our dead religious experience. We feel embarrassment when we explode with anger after bumping into our old theologies. Disorientation may be more honest, and less naive, than that “undisturbed, uncritical equilibrium,” but it is scary, and it is miserable.
We’d get out if we could.
And we’ve tried.
But Brueggemann and the psalms remind us that we can’t get out of it on our own.
Not only can this stage not be rushed, but we can’t get out of deconstruction on our own at all. The world has turned upside down, and no matter how much we want to turn it back, and no matter how much people shame us for not just feeling better or feeling more healed – the healing doesn’t come from ourselves. The psalms of reorientation aren’t stories of successful self-help routines.
Reorientation is not an accomplishment.
It is a gift.
It is grace.
The psalms of reorientation are the words of people who have experienced a miracle, against all odds. They are gasps of thankfulness when the impossible breaks through. They are whispers of delight when the unimaginable has happened. God has broken in to time and space and done something that they could not have anticipated and certainly could not have created. The psalms of orientation
speak of surprise and wonder, miracle and amazement, when a new orientation has been granted to the disoriented for which there was no ground for expectation” .
This is not a building that we pull together out of the rubble of our deconstructed house. This is a brand new thing – a new heaven and a brand new earth. This is a new home altogether. “Even in a world demystified and reduced, grace intrudes and God makes all things new,” Brueggemann says of the reoriented people, the people who have been through hell and come out the other side . This gift of a new world isn’t a re-gift of the old thing in new wrapping paper. Even though there is an ache in us for what we lost, “there is no return. The second creation is a new one and not a return to the first one” .
“See! I am making all things new!”
In the in-between.
Meanwhile, here we are, hanging around the tomb. Here we are, on Holy Saturday. Here we are, desperate for a resurrection but still brokenhearted for what we have lost. Here we are, disoriented and fiercely angry at God, because if reorientation is a gift that God gives, then where are You, God? Why are you still silent?
How long, O Lord? Will you utterly forget me? [Ps 13]
Why, oh Lord, do you stand aloof? [Ps 10]
Reading through Brueggemann’s analysis again, I’ve been weirdly comforted. It’s strangely reassuring that I don’t need to know what is the next thing after a religious disorientation that feels so humongous and disastrous. I’m glad I don’t have to create a new thing, because I don’t know what that could possibly be. I don’t know how to reconstruct, and I am frustrated at my own deconstruction, and I am tired of this tomb, and I am flat out of ideas.
And I am also weirdly comforted by how angry and young the psalmists in disorientation sound. I’ve felt like my whole disorientation and deconstruction has been kind of foolish, and not as “mature” as I’ve wanted it to be. I’ve raged that my old way of knowing God was ripped out of my hands. I’ve tried to go back to the old world and pretend that the loss never happened. I’ve yelled at God. I’ve cried at God. I’ve yelled and cried at the people around me. I’ve felt God’s love even in the pit, then like a cornered animal, turned and bit the hand that comforted me.
Sure, maybe my disorientation been foolish and immature. But it has sounded an awful lot like the psalmists’.
If we are foolish, friends, we are not alone.
So even if we haven’t done deconstruction “well,” thank God for psalms that remind us that the way to deconstruct is not around, but through, our raw loss. It is through the venom and the hopelessness. It is through the frantic attempt to go home, and even through that moment where you say to hell with it, and try to burn “home” to the ground. That is all part of it. That is all OK.
And the next step – after Holy Saturday – is not our step.
I can’t reorient myself. I can’t create a resurrection.
The reorientation belongs to God. The reorientation is a gift.
“Grace intrudes, and God makes all things new.”
“Wait on the Lord! Be strong, and let your heart take courage – and wait on the Lord.”
- All citations from The Psalms and the Life of Faith, Walter Brueggemann. “The Psalms and the Life of Faith: A Suggested Typology of Function.” Ed. Patrick D. Miller.