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Palm Sunday branch

"The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want…"

"Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth."

"Lift up your heads, O ye gates."

Do any of these scriptural quotes seem familiar, or have they possibly been imprinted in your memory? They are all excerpts from well-known psalms, the subject of the Lenten Soup & Study program at Westminster Presbyterian Church. This year’s series is “Discovering the Psalms: Passion, Promise and Praise,” a Kerygma publication authored by renowned theologian and Christian educator Dr. Donald Griggs, who summarized his subject in this manner: “Psalms is a collection of prayers, poems and songs that express to God and to God’s people the widest spectrum of human experience and emotion."

The Psalms are located in the Old Testament, between the books of Job and Proverbs. There are 150 psalms, about half of which are believed to have been authored by King David. Of those, there are 13 referring to certain historical events in David’s life. The Psalms are also included in the collection of writings in the Hebrew scriptures, where their title is "Tehillum," meaning “songs of praise.” Biblical scholars have named as many as 17 different types of psalms. Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932), a pioneer in recognizing that psalms represent a variety of literary forms, identified these four general types: hymns, laments, thanksgivings and royal psalms. Both three-year cycles and daily lectionaries contain at least one psalm reading for each day or week in the scriptural rotation schedule.

Churchgoers of all denominations can recall being exposed to psalms from an early age and in many different ways. Psalms may be:

• Read by clergy in worship or at funerals

• Sung antiphonally or as an anthem by a cantor or choir

• Reproduced and illustrated in a special book called a psalter

• Printed in hymnals with both regular and bold-face type as responsive readings

• Memorized for a church school or confirmation class

• Turned to for comfort and reassurance

Because of a lifelong familiarity with the book of Psalms, many worshippers will be quick to identify a favorite one or two. I especially love Psalm 121, both as a source of solace and an assurance of God’s protection. It begins with the following:

I lift up my eyes to the hills —

from where will my help come?

My help comes from the Lord,

who made heaven and earth.

As a choral singer, I can name no more beautiful an anthem than “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place,” the fourth movement of Brahms' "Requiem," whose lyrics are based upon Psalm 84. An examination of my church’s hymnal reveals dozens of hymns based upon the lyrical poetry of the Psalms.

One may ask, “With such lifelong exposure to and seeming familiarity with the book of Psalms, why spend seven evenings studying them in detail?" The answer to this question, for me, is that a greater understanding and appreciation of this Bible book, in particular, offers me the opportunity for personal spiritual growth and inquiry. Although I have heard, read or sung many of the psalms, there are many more that I have not encountered in my church or devotional life.

The objectives of our study include exploring the Psalms as a unique collection of songs and prayers and regarding it as “A Prayer Book for God’s People.” Indeed, our Presbyterian Mission Agency refers to the Psalms as “a school of prayer.” What better source than the Psalms for praying and for learning to pray, whether one reads or chants a psalm aloud or meditates in silence? Eugene Peterson, author of “Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer,” explains it this way: “When we pray the Psalms, and are trained in prayer by them, we enter into this centuries-long experience of being a people of God.”

If you are interested in attending the remaining sessions of "Discovering the Psalms," held each Wednesday evening (except for Holy Week) through May 3, we gather in the Social Room of Westminster Presbyterian Church, 17 William St., from 6 to 7:30 p.m. All are welcome to join us for a light soup supper and study time.

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Audrey McNally is a lifelong member and current ruling elder of Westminster Presbyterian Church. She sings in the Westminster Choir, moderates the worship committee and serves on the Christian education committee.

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