A few weeks ago, a friend who teaches religion at St. Xavier High School invited me to give a presentation on the Book of Psalms to several sections of a freshman Scripture class. I happily agreed. It’s a topic I know and love well and have spoken about many times. But how to adapt this lesson for the world’s most challenging audience: teenage boys?
My son turns thirteen later this month, and I am well aware of the difficulties of translating my own enthusiasm for archaic biblical poetry into something of interest to students who are preoccupied with homework, sports, friends and girlfriends.
The Book of Psalms has often been called a “school of prayer” because it gives voice to so many different ways of talking to God. For all of the ways that a person can feel — happy, sad, excited, anxious, hopeful, afraid, peaceful — there’s a Psalm for that.
For all of the ways of being in relationship with God — angry, grateful, sorry, enamored, skeptical — there’s a Psalm for that, too.
If you know you should pray but don’t know what words to use, the Book of Psalms is for you. To me, this is psalmody’s most unique feature and the key to its relevance in the complicated lives of young people.
While the rest of the Bible speaks to us, you might say that the Book of Psalms speaks for us. To read it is to find the language to talk to God in any situation.
– Indecision: “When my spirit is faint within me, you know my path.” (142:4)
– Boredom: “I was stupid and could not understand; I was like a brute beast in your presence.” (73:22)
– Thankfulness: “The Lord has done great things for us.” (126:3)
– Stress: “Save me, God, for the waters have reached my neck.” (69:2)
– Resentment: “How long, Lord? Will you utterly forget me?” (13:2)
To know the Psalms is to have a personal library to draw on in moments of need. Hall-of-Fame New York Jets running back Curtis Martin would quietly recite Psalm 91 before taking the field for each game.
Hours after the attacks of 9-11, President George W. Bush addressed a shocked nation with the words of Psalm 23.
Soldiers are probably familiar with Psalm 144: “Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for battle, my fingers for war.”
In these big, critical moments — and in the small, everyday ones — our faith is strengthened when we can find a way to speak to God.
Teenagers are emotional. We all are. The lesson of the Psalms is that it is okay to be emotional with God. My hope for the students is not that they will recall the authorship of the Psalms, nor the dates they were written, nor their various poetic structures and devices.
Rather, I hope they will remember the Psalms as a treasure of their faith, a resource they can draw on at those times when they want to talk to God, but don’t quite know what to say.