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Composing psalms can free your spiritual muse

Popular workshop for contemporary work on ancient tradition pushes people past writer's block

Douglas Todd
Edmonton Journal

Wednesday, June 1, 2005 Page: A13 Section: Ideas

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil. For you are with me.
- from Psalm 23 (known as The Lord is My Shepherd)

When the garage mechanic in the mountainside city of Kimberley, B.C., found out Ray McGinnis was touring Western Canada teaching people how to write their own psalms, he grew nervous.

"Does that mean you're rewriting the Bible?" he asked.

McGinnis told him no. Instead, he was teaching people how to build on a Biblical tradition so, like those who wrote the original Psalms, they could express their intimate feelings to the Supreme Being.

It made sense to the mechanic.

McGinnis recognizes some religious people are wary of anything that sounds as if it's messing with the Biblical canon, including the 150 sacred poem-hymns in The Book of Psalms, which tradition maintains were written by King David.

But McGinnis, who was born in Vancouver and continues to live here, is determined to help people overcome their reluctance to compose their own psalms with his new book, Writing the Sacred: A Psalm-Inspired Path to Appreciating and Writing Sacred Poetry (Northstone, $24.95). McGinnis has been leading workshops at dozens of United and Anglican churches, public libraries, bookstores and non-sectarian retreat centres.

After detailing the various structures of the Psalms, McGinnis invites workshop participants, and now readers, to try their own hand at writing psalms of thanksgiving, of praise, of confession, of wonder, of creation and lament.

(Surprisingly, psalms of lament, which are often grim expressions of suffering combined with cries to God for understanding and help, make up almost half of the Book of Psalms.)

"I don't want people to think they have to compete with the Psalms of David. I don't want them to try to rewrite The Lord is My Shepherd. The Biblical canon is closed," McGinnis said in an interview this week.

"But the spirit of God is still present in our lives and calls us to address afresh how we express the sacred in the ordinary. We're building on a tradition. As it says in the Bible, We're singing a new song to the Lord. "

Composing your own psalm is not a spiritual project that McGinnis, an active United Church member, believes should be restricted to Christians or Jews.

If Buddhist singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen can write sacred poetry in compilations such as The Book of Mercy, McGinnis says, others should also feel free to do so -- "to nurture a greater intimacy between the human and the divine."

Writing the Sacred, which offers numerous exercises to help people get beyond writer's block, contains more than 30 samples of contemporary psalms.

They were written by Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and people who don't identify with any religious tradition.

University of B.C. education professor Hillel Goelman is one of the contributors to McGinnis's book.

Goelman, who is also an associate rabbi at Or Shalom Synagogue in Vancouver, says some people believe Scripture alone contains the only authentic words about God.

But Goelman joins McGinnis in emphasizing that Jews and Christians were writing psalms long after religious leaders decided which ones should go into the canon of the Hebrew Bible (which Christians call the Old Testament).

"I think the psalms are magnificent. They've stood the test of time. But God understands all languages, not just Hebrew or Aramaic," said Goelman, referring to the original languages upon which the Bible is based.

"We also need to sanctify what is alive today. We are a tradition of innovation and change." Goelman predicted McGinnis's book will help readers develop their spiritual lives in ways they hadn't imagined.

The traditional Psalms are incredibly emotional, and often raw.

As noted American theologian Walter Brueggemann says, they are not the voice of God addressing humans.

"They are the voice of our common humanity ... speaking about life the way it really is." They are direct appeals to the Supreme Being.

McGinnis's book encourages readers to access the alternately uplifting and gut-wrenching emotions that were explored by the often-unknown authors of these age-old prayer-poem-hymns.

"I love you, O God, my strength," goes Psalm 18:1.

"I am weary from groaning / every night I soak my bed with tears / They drench my pillow," says Psalm 6:6.

"Pay attention! Answer me! My anxiety devastates me / and I am driven to distraction by the enemy's clamour," pleads the anguished writer of Psalm 55:2.

To illustrate the diverse ways that everyday people can create their own psalms, McGinnis asked a range of North Americans to silence their inner critic and strike up a personal written relationship with the divine.

In Writing the Sacred, Vicki Obedkoff, a Doukhobour who became a United Church minister, talks to God about being "done weeping for what should have been" and yearns for a grace-filled life she hopes will have a "flaming finish."

Derek Evans, former Deputy Secretary General of Amnesty International, laments before the "Holy One" that, in a post-9/11 world, North Americans are being told they're safer, but they barely notice that throughout the world "children are destroyed."

Raheel Raza, a journalist from Toronto who, like most Muslims, has been taught to take seriously the Book of Psalms, thanks God "for the land in which we live in peace" and for being a source of strength when she is "sad and in pain."

Goelman's offering is a prayer-poem that follows a classic "acrostic" Psalm structure, in that a key word in each sentence is based on a consecutive letter of the alphabet.

In his punchy psalm, Goelman also uses an ironic Hebrew name for God, "Hashem," which basically translates as "The Unnameable."

"Take all your Anger / Take all your Brooding / Take all your Compassion / And return to Hashem!" begins Goelman's prayer, which goes on to work its way through the entire English alphabet.

"Take all your Depression / Take all your Embarrassment / Take all your Foolishness / And return to Hashem!"

"Take all your Goodness / Take all your Holiness / Take all your Insight / And return to Hashem!"

Douglas Todd writes for the Vancouver Sun


Photo of Ray McGinnis Reading from Write to the Heart
Ray McGinnis, author of 'Writing the Sacred' reading from his new book at the book launch.