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Circling the Psalms

Over the past few years, I’ve begun to read through the Psalms as a daily practice. Once I reach the end, I return to the beginning all over again. It’s become a circular rhythm in my life, like the ticking hands of the clock or the slow circle of seasons throughout the year. Each psalm feels fresh as I approach it from a different vantage point on the calendar and from the ever-evolving perspective of one who is in constant conversation with its poetry and prayers.

As a lover of words, a lover of deep emotions felt and expressed, I’ve always had an affinity for the Psalms. It is a step away from the practical practices of faith in the Old Testament and a step closer to Christ in the New Testament. When I find it difficult to relate to Levitical law or challenging to walk with one as sure and passionate as Paul, I feel the Psalms like a reverberating song in my spirit—a gap bridged by a melody.

The writers of this book have set a precedent of truth-telling—I have learned from them to take my every thought and feeling before God without shame. David’s struggle with longing, frustration, and pain teaches me to call my own struggles by name. Ethan the Ezrahite teaches me how to craft words of abandon in worship. I learn from Moses to number my days and seek wisdom in the numbering. The Sons of Korah sing with me in lament and in praise.

As I’ve spent time with these rich writings, I’ve discovered that the absence of shame sets desire free. The Psalms are a book of desire—for revenge, for forgiveness, for safety, for shelter, for love, for truth, for rescue, for guidance, for spiritual awakening. They teach me how to desire wholly, without becoming suffocated by shame, with passion and purpose for every secret longing. Here in poetry and prayers, these longings find their place.

As a long-time follower of Christ, I have found a deep resistance in many Christian circles to allowing longing to have its place. Desire is either muted or over-spiritualized. I rarely hear desire discussed in a church or small group setting as a healthy expression of our humanity. Most often, the small flicker of desire has been doused with heavy-handed use of scripture about denying one’s flesh, or reminders of Jesus as a man of sorrows and suffering.

The Psalms teach me how to desire wholly, without becoming suffocated by shame, with passion and purpose for every secret longing. Here in poetry and prayers, these longings find their place. Kimberly Coyle

I often see this suppression of desire among Christian artists when discussing their work. Countless times, I’ve heard artists state that their work is purely for “an audience of one,” and their only desire is to glorify God with their gift. I understand the impetus behind this—it’s right and holy and good to create for the glory of God. But, surely the desire to share one’s art with others, to communicate truth, and create beauty for the sake of beauty are right and holy and good desires too.

Walter Wangerin, Jr. writes in his book Beate Not the Poore Desk, “Art is an act, a process. In order to be complete, writing requires a reader.” Music requires a listener, fine art an audience. Wangerin goes on to say, “Only by the viewer’s responding act does the artist move outside himself into a community.” We create for God, but also for the joy of sharing, for the pleasure of reaching across a divide and discovering a community of people who interact with our offering.

I see similar expressions in other areas of life and community within the Christian church. While out to dinner, a friend from church once told our table of fellow churchgoers that she denies herself nothing—she eats what she fancies, loves what she loves, and spends time on pursuits she enjoys. She said it without the accompanying shame I often feel when desire rises in me. Heads swiveled in her direction and jaws dropped, mine included. It was an unexpected admission, and I felt an equal sense of awe for her honesty and judgement for such an unabashed claim. I confess to jealousy as well because I long to walk with such freedom. I don’t know how to be honest about my deepest longings in community—it requires a vulnerability I don’t possess.

My ultimate desires are fulfilled in relationship with God through Jesus, yet what of these longings for connection with others? For self-expression? For work? Wisdom? Justice? Many of these desires are meant to be fulfilled through relationship, spiritual community, and through the work of my hands here on Earth.

While I have agency to act on these desires in God-honoring ways, God is ultimately sovereign over them. David writes in Psalm 145:16, “You open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.” There is a givenness I must acknowledge, a givenness that can’t be manufactured by my own striving or hard work. In part, I am to do the work and seek the good. But, like so many of the psalmists, I’m also meant to sit with open hands and a heart cupped, willing to receive.

I’m learning to hold questions of desire openly before God without shame, trusting he will satisfy my mouth (my soul, my body, my mind) with good things. As I continue my circle through the Psalms, I find myself in excellent company.

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