Emotive Psalms

Psalms for Young Children
By Marie-Hélène Delval.
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. Pp. 88. $16.50

Review by Amy Lepine Peterson

I didn’t really have a problem with God until I hit my 20s. Up to then, he had been — like my human father — good, kind, and sometimes inscrutable, but always loving, always approachable, always there.

It wasn’t that I had never questioned him — to be fair, in my teens I had battled doubts about God, but they had been cerebral, intellectual doubts. I read the existentialists, and I studied world religions, and I wondered if all that I understood from the Bible could possibly be true.

But emotional doubts — those I had never encountered. I had never railed against God for his absence and silence; in my sweet, safe, sheltered life I had never had cause to question his goodness. As far as I knew, no one else had either.

So when my world flipped upside down at the age of 23, when God absconded, I lacked the emotional vocabulary I needed to pray through it. What I knew of prayer was ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. It was a helpful method, in its way, but it didn’t have a Q, and I was full of questions, many of them angry.

Anger wasn’t an emotion I was used to having, and it wasn’t one I had ever seen Christian adults model for me, either. The fact that negative emotions, especially negative emotions toward God, had never been expressed in my Christian communities left me feeling far too alone in my depression, isolated and like I must be drifting dangerously far from acceptable Christian behavior. I didn’t know what to do with my feelings, or how to connect with God in them.

Once, talking about my dark night of the soul in front of a congregation of 200 persons, I broke down in tears, unable to finish the story. After the service, not a single person approached me. No one called that week to find out how I was doing, or to hear the end of the story. My emotions, it seemed, were too big, and best ignored.

But the fact is, emotions like mine that summer do exist among the people of God, and they aren’t rare. Tragedy strikes every life at some point, and the dark night of the soul is not an uncommon Christian experience. That particular church might not have been able or willing to help me, but words to help did exist, and they were in the Bible. The psalmist became my guide to emotion, his willingness to take every response to God my model.

Now, it’s a model I hope to share with my children. Naturally, everything in me wants to protect them from sorrow forever and ever, but I know that isn’t possible. So along with protecting them, I try to prepare them for whatever tragedy they may encounter. I allow them to see me feeling sad, or angry, or confused, and to see me taking those emotions to God. I want to show them that God is big enough to handle any emotion, question, or doubt they will ever experience.

Marie-Hélène Delval’s Psalms for Young Children is a primary weapon in my fight to show my kids how to take their feelings to God. Delval paraphrases a selection of psalms, using language and imagery appropriate for children, and pairing each with a gorgeous illustration by Arno. When I first showed the book to my three-year-old, Rosie, she insisted on reading all of it, straight through, amazing me with her attention span. The book connected with her. Now, we tend to read two or three psalms each night before bed.

Her favorite is Psalm 69: “When I am sad, / It feels like I’m underwater, / Like I’m stuck in the mud, / Or at the bottom of a dark hole. / Pull me from this dark place, God! / Save me! I need your help!” The illustration opposite the psalm depicts a girl curled in a corner, bowed as if in prayer, while nightmarish sea creatures swim in a starry sky above her. Although — thankfully — Rosie’s short life has been free from much darkness or tragedy, she suffers from bad dreams. Already she knows the feeling of being stuck in a dark place, in need of God’s help, and this psalm makes sense to her. In this beautiful translation, the Word of God is teaching her that those feelings are not something to be denied, but are part of being human; she is learning that the way out of darkness is to cry to God for help.

The Book of Common Prayer has been another guide in bringing my every response to God. When sorrow overwhelms, words are hard to find. At those times, the words that generations have used to approach God bring infinite comfort. When I cannot form my thoughts into prayers, then the prayers of the people are forming me. This, too, is shaping my children’s souls, the language of the liturgy settling like poetry deep inside their hearts, preparing them even now, as they cuddle in my arms during the Eucharist, for the day when they may begin to share in Christ’s sufferings, crying with him and with the psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

God did not answer his Son that dark day; and he does not answer us, at least not with a logical explanation that makes everything okay. He answers with an experience, with resurrection, with a relationship. He pulls us from the belly of the earth, from the belly of the whale, from that deep well of sadness, that dark place with the scary sea creatures. He promises to bring us home to rest. Or, as Marie-Hélène Delval says it in her paraphrase of Psalm 84, “Like a mama bird / who has found / a nest for her baby chicks, / God, you provide / a safe, warm place / for me, your child.”

Amy Lepine Peterson teaches English as a Second Language at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and blogs at Making All Things New.

Emotive Psalms

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