Following Christ’s Example: Praying Psalms in Worship

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by Joan Huyser-Honig

What do you say to family, friends, and team mates gathered to mourn a life cut short by cancer at age 16? What comfort can you offer the grandparents who raised the young man?

When Jesse Leimbach died three years after being diagnosed with cancer, the people of Granite Springs Church in Lincoln, California, knew that pious clichés wouldn’t help. So they used the words God has given us all in the Psalms.

“During the funeral for Jesse we spoke two psalms from memory, Psalms 23 and 46, to encourage everyone attending, especially the high schoolers,” says Kevin Adams, senior pastor.

Keep in mind that few in this suburban Sacramento congregation could have recited psalms from memory three years ago. But Granite Springs has made an intergenerational effort to explore, learn, and use psalms at home and in worship.

“Therefore we will not fear”

Nearly 500 high schoolers attended Jesse Leimbach’s funeral. “Most were biblically illiterate. We introduced the psalms we recited as ‘words to say when there is nothing to say’ and ‘words that have been tested and found helpful to millions of people from all different faith backgrounds,’ ” Adams says.

Granite Springs members were able to speak Psalms 23 and 46 together at the funeral because they were well into their “year of psalms,” which began in September 2008.

On the surface, life looks easy in the fast-growing towns northeast of Sacramento. It’s a region of new homes, excellent schools, ample parks, low crime, and economic opportunity, not a place you’d expect to resonate with bleak Psalm 88 (“darkness is my closest friend”). The temptation is to practice a Christianity as upbeat and shiny as the surrounding culture.

Starting a year of psalms as the economy tanked turned out to be “an amazing fit,” Adams says. Granite Springs experienced psalm-based sermons and worship in themed series.

Filling the storehouse

Worshipers listened to or read entire psalms in worship. Leaders briefly explained where a given psalm fit in the Psalter and how others, such as Paul or St. Bernard or Swiss Protestants, used it. The same psalms resurfaced in subsequent Sundays in calls to worship, prayers of confession, and sermon references.

Adams says that to build “a storehouse of love for the psalms” the church offered a small-group curriculum in psalms, which 80 percent of small groups chose to use. Children’s, youth, music, and other ministries also aligned with this emphasis on psalms.

Weekend workshops let people experience the psalms as “the ancient prayer language of God’s people” that still helps us pray today, alone and together—especially when we need solace, reconciliation, or forgiveness.

The raw emotion in many psalms surprised worshipers. One member described some of the psalms as “yelling at God” or sounding “self-righteous, like ‘I have done everything right. Why are you not doing your job, God?’ ”

Although reading and hearing such psalms first felt awkward, maybe even out of line, this member “found it very freeing. I know that God will love me no matter what. So why am I not being honest with him? He always knows what I am feeling and when I am not being honest.”

As job loss, difficult jobs, ill health, and other traumas stir up emotions, Adams says, “Folks are daring to pray in new ways.”

The psalms have become such a part of how congregation members pray and understand themselves as God’s people that Adams says, “It will be hard to imagine a worship service without the Psalms!”

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