2016-06-30
The two congregations are a continent and a religious universe apart, and yet in time of need they turned to the same powerful verses--in uncannily similar ways.

Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas, began its psalm initiative at the behest of two famously jailed members. Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, imprisoned in Kabul on charges of Christian proselytizing, had managed to speak to a lawyer, and he had passed on a request: Could their home congregation pray Psalms 27 ("The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear?") and 91 ("...You will not fear the terror of the night; nor the arrow that flies by day") for the captives?

Antioch could. It already had a 15x25-ft. "prayer room" with an unlocked private entrance for access at all hours, like an automatic teller vestibule. Ever since the two women had been arrested, a steady stream of worshippers had signed up and filed through 24 hours a day. Now that Heather's and Dayna's preferences were known, the prayers shifted heavily toward psalms. Not just Psalms 27 and 91, however, but 92, 46, and a host of others. Amy Gulley, who was responsible for posting an e-mail detailing prayer requests, personally preferred 34, which runs "The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them."

Gulley, 28, says, "I would picture myself in their situation, facing a mountain of fear. I loved that the psalm says God would deliver them and angels would surround them and rescue them." In addition, she says, almost everyone in the congregation prayed Psalm 18, because the Psalmist says of God, "'my cry to him reached His ears'...and everyone needed to hope that was exactly what was going on."


Meanwhile, in New York City, Judith Kaplan received her own call to the psaltery, which she knows as the tehillim. Kaplan, 19, is an observant Jew studying at Manhattan's Stern College for Women. Orthodox Jewish tradition requires that when someone dies the body be supervised by a watcher, or shomer, until the burial 24 hours later. The custom is called shmira. Shomers traditionally recite psalms to calm the departing souls. After the mass murder of September 11, Jewish leaders in New York organized a shmira at the New York Medical Examiner's office. With so many dead, yet unrecovered or unidentifiable for burial, it resembled no other shmira in history-- although it did bear an unintentional likeness to the tag-team worship in Waco.

Once again, the devout reciters took over a small room--in this case a police department trailer outside the New York Medical Examiner's office, within sight of the refrigerated trucks filled with body parts. There is no 24-hour time frame. Dozens of volunteer shomers from around New York alternate duty on the trailer's hard molded plastic chairs: Seven days a week, "every hour, every single second of the day," says Kaplan, adding, "It's beautiful." The shifts are four hours long. Kaplan's grandfather, who works at Morgan Stanley, avoided the carnage because he had a dentist appointment on the morning of September 11. His grandchild now returns to the coroner's office every Friday for the 12 A.M. to 4 A.M. shift--by now it is part of her Sabbath routine.

Most shomers run through groups of psalms or try to recite all 150. Kaplan, who is known to the police who share the trailer as "the singing girl," puts them to tunes of her own devising. Like several other shomers, she says she can feel the dead souls responding. "You spend hours there praying," she says, "and you feel that they're saying them with you. It's like they're saying 'thank you.'" Her favorite psalm is 27, one of those requested by the two Christian aid workers. The Lord is her light and her salvation. Whom should she fear?

The months following September 2001 might be described as America's Psalm Moment. Of course, every moment is a psalm moment somewhere in the country.

Poised gracefully at the intersection of Jewish and Christian traditions--limpid, profound, accessible--the psalms include some of humankind's most ebullient and best-known expressions of thanksgiving, as well as acknowledgments of our deepest anguish. Written not in the voice of a teacher or historian but in the unguarded language of a solitary singer, they have served generation after generation as a doorway to personal spirituality over 3000 years. Jews pray psalms throughout the daily and Sabbath liturgy. A sung psalm is part of almost every Catholic Mass. Luther called the psalms "the Bible in miniature," and they have launched a thousand Protestant hymns, including his "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." (Islam recognizes King David as a prophet for having received the psalms from God, but does not feature them prominently.)

Despite this exposure, however, all psalms do not share equal billing. Theologian Walter Brueggeman noted in 1984 that among American Protestants, the most-quoted psalms, even by preachers, tend to be the most reassuring and least challenging. Brueggeman attributed this to the status of American churchgoers as "...children of the Enlightenment seeking to go from strength to strength, victory to victory and ignoring darkness and disorientation." This was a pity, he suggested, because life is not really like that, and the psalms, with their range from bitter to sweet, sometimes within one poem, are well-suited to guide us toward redemption in the midst of what he called the "untamed darkness" present in every life.

Brueggeman proved a prophet after untamed darkness came calling on September 11. The valley of the shadow of death opened like fault line along Wall Street and spread to Main Street, and the psalms were suddenly in popular play. George W. Bush, with his acute instinct for faith, incorporated Psalm 23 into his first short speech that day.

We soon learned that Todd Beamer, a passenger on United Flight 93, recited Psalm 23 before joining the heroic attack on its hijackers. That was just the beginning: thousands of memorials and sermons over the following months invoked the psalms. Mayors read them aloud at town meetings. Hundreds of e-mail chains featured them, and the Senate Chaplain recited from that body's floor. Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw surprised colleagues on Fox Football when he extemporized, "For all believers, I pull out this Bible. For those of you looking for an answer, read Psalm 10 for help." That particular psalm expresses confidence that the Lord will strengthen the heart of the meek, as well as "break the arm of the wicked and the evildoer."

Particularly popular was Psalm 46, which declares, "we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea." It tells of a city (actually Jerusalem), in which many chose to see New York: "God is within her, she will not fall" (NIV). Asked by a National Public Radio interviewer whether he would write a poem about the disaster, Poet Laureate Billy Collins replied modestly, "At a time like this it is best to read a psalm."

Why? The psalms, it turns out, were an eerily appropriate script for a nation reacquainting itself with the kind of adversity that produced their poetry in the first place. Much of the psalter is traditionally attributed to King David, who survived and thrived in an 11th-century B.C. Mideastern landscape of merciless slaughter, side-switching warlords, and religious passions reminiscent of nothing so much as modern-day Afghanistan. Secular scholars decline to pin down an original source, but assert that many of the songs got their final edit hundreds of years later as the Jews returned from their Babylonian exile, a period of brutal defeat, religious desecration and immense loss.

Thankfully, neither David's world nor that of the exiled Jews offers an exact mirror for the current American condition; but parallels were suddenly more evident. Psalm 10 presents a villain who "boasts" as he "lurks in secret like a lion in his covert" and "murders the innocent." For a modern-day cognate, we need look no further than Osama bin Laden's "home video." Those trying to guess the thoughts of survivors of 9/11 victims as they marked their first New Year's without their loved ones might turn to Psalm 13, "How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all the day?" And for people of faith, the same psalm, without answering the "how long" question, hints at how the suffering may eventually be mediated: "But I have trusted in thy steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in thy salvation." Millions of Christians and Jews have allowed such lines to soothe them in private tragedy; it has been a while since they have been nationally applicable.

As our immediate fear of terror dissipates and we move on to less elemental questions, such as Afghan nation-building or the latest unemployment figures, it will be interesting to see whether the psalms stay foremost in our consciousness or are packed back in the box marked "Break Glass In Case of Emergency," along with Cipro and other strong medicines. Their assumption of an anthropomorphized God intimately involved in history, although the very source of their power to heal, may eventually grate on liberal believers.

Nor are they necessarily the RX for every ailment. Several address military victory, for instance, but tend to read more like fantasies of God-aided triumph than strategies toward a permanent peace. I realized this in mid-November, while editing a story describing the fall of Kabul. As I put the final polish on an account of the waves of American 1000-lb. bombs and rocket-firing helicopter gunships that incinerated our enemies and assured victory, I remembered the part of Psalm 11 where God finally arrives to aid the upright: "The Lord will rain down upon the wicked fiery coals," reports the Bible; "A scorching wind shall be their lot." Two images of flaming retribution, 3000 years distant clicked into one, somewhat disconcertingly. Then there is the infamous line in Psalm 137: ""O daughter of Babylon...happy shall he be, who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock."

For those most familiar and intimate with the psalms, hard verses are not dissuaders. I mentioned the fiery-coal clause to Antioch Community's Amy Gulley, who admitted "It does sound harsh." She also mulled a bit over Psalm 92's promise that "...all evildoers are doomed to destruction forever...lo, thy enemies shall perish." But then she rallied, pointing out that her congregation has prayed repeatedly on behalf of both Afghanistan and the Taliban leaders, "that their hearts be softened." The key to appreciating some of the psalms' more extreme language, she explained, could be found in Paul's letter to the Ephesians, which states, "We are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers... against the spiritual hosts of wickedness." That is, against Satan, not his human pawns.

As it happens, Antioch Christian's vigil ended on November 15, when American Special Forces units plucked Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer up outside of Ghazni and flew them to safety. Gulley believes that psalms played a vital supernatural role in the liberation. She reports that on the day before the rescue, Antioch associate pastor Danny Mulkey, who had been in Pakistan trying to aid their release, suddenly felt God "lay it on his heart" to pray Psalm 50, verses 14-15: "Offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving and pay your vows to the Most High; and call upon me on the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me." He prayed the psalm and passed it on to the Waco congregation. It seemed an odd text to Gulley: "It didn't seem right to be thanking God at such a traumatic time." But they complied. They found out only later, Gulley reports, that Heather and Dayna, still under Taliban control and uncertain of their fate, had pulled out their Bibles and were moved to recite the exact same verses at the precise same time as Mulkey. And they were delivered. And they glorified Him--at their first press conference, at the White House, on Larry King. "They're saying God got us out," says Gulley happily. "Nobody else could have done it. Without a doubt."


The bucket-brigade shmira at the Manhattan coroner's office, meanwhile, goes on. It will continue until the city of New York announces that it

is no longer seeking remains at Ground Zero. Judith Kaplan will be there every Saturday morning, singing psalms. She is proud of a rapport she has built up with the Episcopal chaplain on the scene, happy when the beat cops say her presence gives them strength. She sees her primary service to the souls of the dead, violently ripped from their earthly bonds and now awkwardly reorienting themselves upwards. But "it's not only for them," she says. "You are praying for their families, for what happened, for the city."

And she says she has one final reason to be glad. Psalm 19 asserts that the words of the Lord are "sweeter than drippings of the honeycomb." For her part, Kaplan asserts that the words of the psalms are "addictive." Before September 11, "the psalms were just something we did." Since then, singing to the refrigerator trucks, she says, "For the first time, I knew how to read them with meaning. They are something to do when you have no one else to turn to, and you have to turn to God.

"Terrible things happen," she says. Through the psalms, "you're calling and crying and you're all upset, but it's also comforting. You have a sense that it's all okay.

"I'm going to be saying them for years."

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