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The Songs We Know by Heart -- Psalms 121 & 23 (Pride Sunday; 4th Sunday After Pentecost)

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

Earlier this month, I took some vacation time and had the chance to spend a week in Provincetown, Massachusetts, out on the very tip of Cape Cod. Historically, Provincetown started out as a fishing village – a place on Cape Cod where folks fished for Cod. Over the years, Provincetown – Ptown, as it is known – also became an artists’ colony of sorts – as painters and poets alike were drawn to its coastal New England light and life.

And, over the years, it also became a refuge for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people – for the LGBTQIA+ community. Particularly for queer folks living in the Northeast – New York, Boston – over the 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s – Provincetown became a safe haven. It became a place where we could be fully ourselves – apart from the lives we lived back home, which were to varying degrees, and in different ways, lived in the closet – in a world that made our lives and our loves illegal. Provincetown became a safe harbor. Folks like playwright Tennessee Williams, poet Mary Oliver, artist Mark Rothko called it home. So many others came for refuge and rest.

Over the years, Provincetown has retained a bit of all of that. The fishing boats still come and go. It still has a small town feel – though you know you are not in Tennessee because you can still expect now and then to see a drag queen freely walking down the street to her next show. It’s also now a tourist destination with a diverse array of folks from all over, straight people too.

The first weekend we were there just happened to be Provincetown’s Pride celebration. They are early on the Pride Month calendar; SF and NY with parades today are the closers. Now, some might say that every day in Provincetown is Pride – but on Pride weekend they do all the Pride things. I went to the rally at Town Hall. (You know I love a rally and a march.) And they had a parade – actually, they called it a sashay – we sashayed out of Town Hall into the streets – because a parade requires a permit.

And, that weekend, as you walked up and down the main street, you’d hear – again and again – the songs of Pride – the songs that have come to be Pride anthems. At the rally in Town Hall, someone sang “I Am What I Am” from La Cage Aux Folles – “I bang my own drum/ Some think it’s noise/ I think it’s pretty.” Throughout the weekend, there was the dance beat of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” – Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out”... “I want the world to know, I’ve got to let it show” – The Village People’s “YMCA” – the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine.” Now, I name those because I’m a gay man of a certain age. Younger queer folks would likely name Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” – or Beyoncé’s “You Won’t Break My Soul.”

These Pride anthems – they are the songs we know by heart. We have sung these songs –in Pride Parades and on dance floors. We’ve also sung these songs holding each other through the worst of times. We’ve sung these songs as we emerged from the closet as a community after Stonewall, and then in the 1980s to stand for and with those living and dying in the worst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. We’ve sung these songs in the struggle for marriage equality – the struggle just to have the world see our families as fully human. We sing these songs now in protest to stop the violence and hate against our transgender siblings.

When we sing these songs now, we sing them not just remembering our history – but bringing it to life again in the midst of the present struggle – as across this nation and around the world, we see a continued increase in physical and legislative attacks against LGBTQIA+ people, our bodies, and our families and children.

These are the songs we know by heart. They say something of the struggle we have lived together. They say something of who we are in a world that too often would rather that we not say or even be who we are. They have become a part of us. They are there when we need them. And when we sing them, we enter into the song again, and together find our way to life.

The Psalms are like that. On an even bigger scale – around the world, across traditions, down through the generations – for so many – the Psalms are the songs we know by heart.

The Psalms emerged as the songs of a people – the sung prayers of a people.[1] As the Hebrew people, the people of Israel, lived life together in relationship with God – over the course of the stories we encounter in the Old Testament – these are the songs they sang, and eventually came to write down as a fixed part of their tradition – the songbook of their lives.

If you skim through the Psalms, you’ll see that a number them are attributed to King David. He may have written some of them, but it’s more likely that the writers invoked his name to connect the Psalms to the David tradition – to the tradition of a strong king leading an embattled nation.[2] It’s more likely that the Psalms were written from the time of King Solomon through the Babylonian exile – over a span of more than 500 years. That’s a time span bigger than from the time of Shakespeare to our day.

The Psalms were written in community, by community. As one writer says, “The Psalms were written in no specific order; they arose impromptu from a variety of individual life situations; and they were shaped by a community over time.”[3] The Psalms emerged out of the fullness of life lived together – and they have continued to be the songs of a people living life with God.

The Psalms engage God in every bit of that life. As we noticed last week, they cover the full range of human experience and emotion.[4] The psalms sing of lament and liberation – comfort, fear, bewilderment, anger, gratitude, wisdom, longing, celebration, desperation, loneliness, community, deep calm, and vibrant praise. The Psalms are honest, sometimes shocking – or as one writer says, “they are honest, but not obvious.”[5] They voice emotions we might not expect to say to God, the things we sometimes think we shouldn’t say to God.

The Psalms are songs. That’s what the word “psalm” means – “something sung” – more specifically, something sung to a stringed instrument.[6] Some psalms are clearly written to be sung as a part of worship.[7] There’s a group of them written as pilgrimage songs – called “songs of ascent” – to be sung by the people as they head up the hills to Jerusalem. Psalm 121 is one of those – “I lift up mine eyes unto the hills.” And some are deeply personal and intimate – the people singing of those times when we sing to God, alone, in the middle of the night, from a bed soaked with our tears. (Psalm 6)

The Psalms are also poetry. And that’s important to remember. The Psalms aren’t written to convey factual information. They sing with imagery that says something of our life with God – images that give us a glimpse of things too big to name and understand in full. They play with language and rhythm. In our culture, one of the conventions of poetry is rhyme – in Hebrew poetry it’s repetition – they say it, and then they say it again.[8]

The Psalms voice emotion – they shout, they whisper, they groan. They don’t necessarily endorse the emotions they express –they just name them as true. Real. This is what life is sometimes like. When the Psalmist rages – the Psalm isn’t saying that we shouldrage like that – but rather that we do – sometimes – rage like that – whether we say it out loud to each other or not – and that God listens to us – even when we rage.

The Psalms are prayers. In the Psalms, we sing our life to God, and God sings our life with us, every distress on the way to deliverance, every lament into the wide expanse of liberation, every lonesome groan into the singing of a people, together, the songs we know by heart.

I thought we’d start out this summer with two of the most familiar, beloved Psalms. Let’s look first at Psalm 121.

Do you know where I first encountered Psalm 121? The Sound of Music. It’s what the Mother Superior says to Fraulein Maria to encourage her: “I lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help.”

But you know what? For centuries, we have read that in the King James translation as a statement. But the original Hebrew is better translated as a question: The Psalmist looks up and danger is coming over those hills. And so she asks, “Where is my help coming from?” Trouble is all around. “From whence cometh my help?”

Notice the poetry of that:

  • The Psalmist looks up to the hills.

  • Asks, “Where is my help coming from?”

  • Answers, “My help is coming from God.”

  • The Psalmist looks back up to the hills: My help is coming from the Maker of all that – the God who is the God of all that – the hills, the danger, all the heavens, all the earth.”[9]

Notice the poetic parallels I mentioned:

  • “The One who watches over you will not slumber/ The One who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” The Psalmist has to emphasize that – God will neither slumber nor sleep, because sometimes, sometimes, it sure feels like God is asleep. The Psalms can say that.

  • “The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.” “God will watch over your coming and your going, now and forever.” Everywhere. All the time. In every distress. God will come to help.

Psalm 23 wraps that assurance up in this lush and lovely imagery.

There’s comfort abounding in this psalm – but also notice the danger lurking not too far off. There’s the valley of the shadow of death. There are enemies on the prowl. God nourishes us at a table, because we are famished. God leads us beside the still waters and gives us rest, because we are weary. All that we need, God’s hand provides.

We see God doing the shepherd things: providing, accompanying, protecting, nourishing, leading us home to a place of rest.

Sometimes in these familiar words, we see something new. Just a few months ago, I was reading Psalm 23 – and that “prepares a table before me in the presence of mine enemies” caught my eye. I’ve always read that as a comfort and protection against my enemies – so I can get rested and nourished, and back into battle. But a couple months ago, I read it and thought, “What if that is a table for me and for my enemies” – a table before me, in the presence of my enemies, for us both, for us all. What if what God is providing is a table and a place where we all can feast together.

For thousands of years, folks have drunk deeply from the Psalms and found there living water. The invitation – as we begin this summer with the Psalms – is to take a sip – to take a sip and to savor[10] a Psalm.. or two. Here are some ideas for getting started, things to do this week. I’ll start easy:

  • You could read a Psalm out loud. To be sure, the Psalms are words on a page that we can read and ponder in our hearts. Absolutely. And, Psalms are written to be spoken and sung. Read one out loud, and listen to how it comes to life.

  • Or, you could read some of the short Psalms. And here’s something I just learned: There’s a group of shorter Psalms all bunched together – those “songs of ascent” I mentioned – from Psalms 120 to 134. Give those a read, see what you notice.

  • If you find one that particularly resonates, give a try to memorizing it. Claim it as a song you know by heart. The beauty and power of that – is that the Psalm will be there when you need it. You never know – you may be close already with Psalm 23 or Psalm 121.

  • You could join us online for Tuesday morning prayer, pray a couple Psalms in the community of kindred spirits.

  • Or, you could pray a Psalm on your own. Read it slowly. Savor it. Maybe ask, “Where’s the trouble in this Psalm?” “Where’s the trouble I’m feeling in my life?” “Where is the Psalmist finding God... in all that?” Or you could listen and ask, “As I look around our world, who is in trouble and calling out for help? How can I be the shade at their right hand?

God is my shepherd, I shall not want. She leads me beside the still waters. She restores my soul.

Take a sip from those still waters...and savor.

I think some of you may know that over the past few months, I’ve been sitting for interviews with a documentarian – Lynne Gerber – who is doing a podcast documentary on Janie Spahr. Lynne is a scholar and historian of the LGBTQIA+ movement. And Janie’s ministry is historic.

This week was our fourth and final interview session – and as we were wrapping up, I told Lynne how I would be talking about Pride anthems this Sunday – the songs we know by heart. She said, “Don’t forget Holly Near’s Singing for Our Lives.” And I thought, “Oh, of course.” I don’t know if you know this one or not – it doesn’t have the dance beat of “I Will Survive” – but when those rallies or vigils get real, this is what we sing:

We are a gentle, angry people,

and we are singing, singing for our lives.

We are a land of many colors,

and we are singing, singing for our lives.

We are gay and straight together,

and we are singing, singing for our lives.

We are a peaceful, loving people,

and we are singing, singing for our lives.

The Psalms are the songs we know by heart. We sing them out of the real things of life. We sing them. And in a way, they sing us. They sing us toward each other. They sing us into community.

They sing us closer to the God who is always near –

who is always on the way –

who neither slumbers nor sleeps –

who leads us beside the still waters –

who watches over our coming in and our going out,

both now and forevermore.

In the Psalms, we sing our life to God, and God sings our life with us – every distress on the way to deliverance, every lament into the wide expanse of liberation, every lonesome groan into singing together the songs we know by heart.

© 2023 Scott Clark

[1] For general background on the Psalms generally and Psalms 23 and 121, see Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger, Psalms(New York, NY; Cambridge University Press, 2014); Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, David T. Shannon & David T. Adamo, “Psalms” in The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), pp. 220-234; Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007); Ellen Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Lanham, MD; Roman Littlefield Publishers, 2001); W. David. O. Taylor, Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2020). [2] See Murrell, p.222; Brueggemann, p. 2. [3] Murrell, p.222; Alter, p.xvii. [4] See Murrell, pp.222-23; [5] Davis, p.6. [6] See Alter, p.xx; Brueggemann, p.2. [7] See Alter, pp. xiii-xvii, for the historic context and varied purposes of the psalms. [8] See Murrell, p.222; Alter, pp.xx-xxviii [9] See Rolf Jacobson, Commentary on Working Preacher at [10] See Taylor, p.52 (“For any reader of the psalms, the invitation is to savor the words of the Word.”).


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