I would like to invite you to explore the ideas of stress, loss, and worry during hard times. We will look at themes of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation from Walter Brueggemann’s Message of the Psalms. We tend to place “bumper sticker” phrases on disorientating events to avoid the discomfort, fear, doubt, and loss we are feeling. The other common way to deal with the pain of disorientating events is by making ourselves busy with doing something “useful” or “helpful.” Both can be ways we avoid dealing with reality and being present to our discomfort.
Before we go any further, I’d like to share that what we are talking about here is Christian Spiritual Formation. Spiritual formation is a process of transforming the soul into the image of Jesus Christ for others. It’s a lifestyle, and as followers of Jesus, it’s not optional! It begins when we accept Jesus and ends when we die. We don’t make formation happen but make ourselves available to God, and God does the transforming.
In the Psalms, Brueggemann gives us a framework of the life of faith that helps us describe and deal with what we are feeling in relationship to traumatic and disorienting events. Orientation, this is when everything in your relationship with God is going well, and it all makes sense. For many of us, this is a comfortable time when we feel like we understand what is happening in life, and there is an inner sense of peace, calm, and purpose. We frequently reference when we first found faith. However, one of the most profound aspects of life is that good and bad happen to everyone. The rain falls on everyone. (Examples of Psalms of Orientation: Psalm 1, 8, 33, 145, 104, 119)
There is an event in life like COVID-19 that begins to move us from the orientation to a stage of disorientation. This step happens when a circumstance changes the status quo and our sense of orientation. Disorientation, however, is it is much more than circumstantial discomfort. Disorientation is an inner, personal awareness, and recognition that something is changing, a profound shift is taking place. One does not know what is ending or what is beginning. Disorientation is the experience of living in the in-between. (Brueggemann, 25) In this time of COVID-19, we are all getting the sense that there is a profound shift taking place in things like the economy, vocations, education, family interactions, world vision, understanding of God, God’s kingdom, God in the world, and our place in it. This shift moves us into disorientation. (Examples of Psalms of Disorientation: Psalm 13, 35, 74, 79, 86, 88, 109, 137)
Disorientation is the stage in your relationship with God characterized by vulnerability, frustration, doubt, fear, feeling lost, and wanting answers, miracles, and signs. We are in this time of disorientation. King David had many disorientating events in his life, from his adultery, persecution, and pursuit by Saul, rebellion and death of Absalom, and more. These events shaped his relationship and experience with God. His gut-wrenching psalms of disorientation can be our model at this moment. We can learn from these psalms that are characterized by his sharing of doubts, fears, anger, frustration, etc. with God. It is all there; David’s heart poured out to God with raw honesty.
We have an epic invitation to sit in the disorientation while God rewrites human history. We have permission to scream at God. We can share our doubts and fears directly with God. We can express our anger at political leaders with God. We can demand justice and even retribution in the face of injustices. God knows what is in and on our hearts, and our invitation is to allow God into our raw inner states and vulnerabilities. We have a profound opportunity at this moment to show the world we don’t have all the answers. We can try not to use Christian platitudes like placating bumper stickers to make it okay. Covid-19 is not okay, and we can be upset.
The moment will come when we need to move from a context of disorientation to a new orientation. Isaiah 43 tells that God is doing something new and then asks – “do you not perceive it?” The movement begins to happen when we are surprised by a new gift from God, a new coherence, made present precisely when we thought that everything was lost. (Brueggemann, 26) In other words, we find a new normal of God in the world AND God in ourselves. We discover a new way of being and finding Emmanuel – God with us. The anger, doubt, frustration, and confusion of disorientation begins to find new truths about God and a new reality that helps us praise God even after we have spent the time in disorientation. The process is a reorientation or new orientation to God. This extraordinary event demonstrated characteristically by the action of God that goes beyond reasonable expectations. This event evokes a reorientation and praise to God because the new gift of life must be cheerfully accepted and fully recognized as coming directly from God. (Brueggemann, 27-28) (Examples of Psalms of New Orientation: 29, 30, 40, 65, 66, 93, 96, 97, 99, 114)
However, we MUST go through the disorientation to get to the new praise. Disorientation unravels our attachment to the status quo, our illusion of control, and our need for comfort. Disorientation helps us to let go of the past and desire only God. In this process, we will open ourselves and our world to a new understanding and presence of God. We are changed, and this one process of spiritual formation whereby we are made more like Christ in our world.
Brueggemann suggests, when we acknowledge these movements in our lives, from orientation to disorientation to reorientation, then we are doing something countercultural. Psalm 42 cries out, “Deep calls to Deep.” Acknowledging or accepting our invitation to fully experience the profound movement from orientation through disorientation and then reorientation places us directly in a countercultural experience. Such an experience draws us beyond the norms of a culture that feeds on distraction and lives in superficiality. Accepting countercultural activity is subversive within society. The power of the Psalms in expressing this invitation to personal formation is perhaps why the psalms of regret have almost ceased to be used within cooperate worship. (Brueggemann, 29-30)
In conclusion, we are still amid disorientation. I hope Brueggemann has helped to orient your experience in life with God right now. My suggestions are that we feel it, express it, and share it. Shout out your frustration to God. Whisper your fears that you don’t even want to say out loud in prayer. Practice intentional watching, waiting, and listening for that moment God will break through into your life and give you a new normal, a new orientation. We have a hope that is not empty but trustworthy in Jesus. None of this is to say that COVID-19 is okay. It is reshaping human history. God has chosen each of us to be here now. What does it mean to be chosen, to be faithful, and to be honest?
Peter McCurdy and David Reed
March 27, 2020
Brueggemann, Walter. Mensaje de Los Salmos. Ciudad de México: Augsburg Publishing, 1998.
*Available in English: Walter Brueggemann. The Message of the Psalms. Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984.