The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      26th September 2021
The Psalms - it's ok to not be ok
Graham Dunn

When I first heard that I might be serving my curacy at Hampstead Parish church – there were many things that excited me.

One of them was Choral Evensong.
Although I admitted in my sermon this morning to being a Phil Collins fan – I also adore choral music. There is simply something about it that lifts and transports the soul. Especially when done with the skill and dedication of our wonderful musicians here at HPC.
Another factor of Evensong of course is that you get, as one friend of mine describes it, a good, healthy dose of scripture.
Today is no exception – we had our first lesson from Exodus in which we see Moses going up the mountain and in our second lesson from Matthew’s gospel, we have Jesus yet again tangling with the scribes whilst at the same time healing a paralytic. Both passages rich with the potential for interpretation.
But the very first part of the Word of God in the service of Evensong is not in fact read, it is sung – it is of course the psalm and sung as always so beautifully by the choir this evening.
Clergy say Morning and Evening Prayer each day and the psalms are a key part of that, just as they are at our weekly services of Evensong.
Like many others, I’ve increasingly found the psalms to be a life-giving part of my faith.
The book of psalms has always had an important place in the spiritual life of both Jews and Christians. 
There is a huge variety of material across the 150 psalms that have come down to us and in the early 20th century, attempts began to be made to categorise the psalms into certain themes.
One of the most important features of the psalms, for me at least, is the sheer range of emotions that they cover. 
There are psalms that express praise and adoration for God.
There are also psalms that express anger and rage.
There are psalms that express fear and despair.
Ultimately, the psalms capture an extraordinary range of emotions which, put together sum up much of the lived experience of life on earth. 
In the fourth century, the Christian leader Athanasius of Alexandria tellingly said that while most of scripture speaks to us – the Psalms speak for us.
As Christians who believe in the redemptive power of Jesus’s resurrection and our subsequent assurance of eternal life, it can be tempting to think that this means life should all be very straightforward and that our resting state should be boundless happiness. 
Of course, this is not the reality of life.
As I have said before, the Christian faith does not inoculate us from the trials and tribulations of life.
At times we may feel abandoned by God.
At times we may even feel angry with God.
At times we simply feel wretched.
In the psalms, we find writings which speak for us across all of our experiences.
In the psalms we do not always find a cuddly relationship with God. It is often raw and real as we are taken on roller coaster journeys of emotion. In many ways, taken together the two psalms we heard tonight are a good example of the sort of journey the psalms take us on. 

In Psalm 120 which is often categorised as an ‘individual lament’ – we see the writer signalling that God has heard them in the past but nonetheless finding him or themselves once again in a time of trouble. ‘Deliver my soul, O Lord from lying lips’ ‘Woe is me that I am constrained’. There is also a sense of crying out to God about the injustice of the situation – ‘I labour for peace, but when I speak unto them thereof – they make ready for battle’. Emotions we will all have experienced at some point.
As we then move into Psalm 121, we are returned – whether or not by the same author we do not know – to a place of greater trust and confidence in God.
‘I will lift up mine eyes to unto the hills, from whence cometh my help’ and finally ‘The Lord shall preserve thy going out, and thy coming in; from this time forth for evermore.’
The ending is full of hope and faith, but we don’t arrive there without times of fear, doubt and questioning.
This is a pattern found within many individual psalms and across groups of them within the psalter.
The reality of being in a place of pain and darkness, even when we know God is ultimately there, is threaded throughout.
We live in an era of many competing messages in connection with mental health. For a long time, the value of a stiff upper lip, pulling yourself together and keeping calm and carrying on were extolled. 
Equally we live in an age in which social media platforms allow us to project an image to the world of the sort of life we want other people to think we’re leading – even if underneath, we’re secretly struggling. 
However, in recent years we have increasingly seen efforts to encourage people to open up and express their feelings and emotions – even if they are negative or seemingly problematic.
More and more we are rightly being called to talk about our mental health with trusted friends and family in the context that, to quote a phrase: “it’s ok to not be ok”.
As I said earlier, pretending it’s ok when it’s not, can be a particular temptation for Christians. 
The psalms show us that having faith in God and struggling with the realities of life are not mutually exclusive – they give us powerful examples of expressing the full range of emotions – including sometimes communicating anger directly to God.
They also give us a structure for exploring our emotions in the context of our faith. They can sometimes provide helpful stepping-stones as we tentatively seek to turn from doubt and fear into the arms of the God who loves us.
In a world in which glib slogans of spiritual hope are everywhere – the psalms do not take the easy way out – they face into how it really feels to be alive. Sometimes full of exuberant joy; sometimes in the darkness of despair.
The trajectory in the psalms though, is almost always clear – no matter how difficult life may be – and they often paint a bleak picture - God is still there and it is in this that we put our hope and trust even when that can seem nearly impossible.
The Psalms speak for us when we want to say ‘Woe is me – Deliver my Soul O Lord’ but they also ultimately remind us that ‘The Lord shall preserve thy going out, and thy coming in; from this time forth for evermore.
Amen

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