Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann has devised a simple but deep way to categorize the Psalms that has real applicability to life. He suggests that most psalms will fall in one of the following three categories: Orientation, Disorientation, and Reorientation. While wordy, perhaps, these labels are very helpful in understanding life. In some Psalms life is good and as it should be, in others psalms life is chaotic, hard, and confusing, and in yet other psalms life is experienced as new beginning, renewal, and moving beyond. Sometimes all three of these can show up in the same psalm, as with Psa 23. The Biblical story resounds with this rhythm. Notice the following examples:

Exodus:           Egypt ➤ Wilderness ➤ Promised Land

Exile:                           In the Land ➤ Exiled in Babylon ➤ Return to the Land

Jesus:                                      Life ➤ Death and Burial ➤ Resurrection

Christians                                            Old Life ➤ Repentance ➤ New Life

What is common to all of these stories is the movement through orientation, disorientation, and into reorientation. Also common is that no one really likes being in the middle phase of disorientation.

William Bridges, in an insightful little book called Transitions: Making Sense of Life Changes, points out that all transitions in life have three basic phrases: the “old,” the “new,” and the “in-between,” this last one Bridges himself calls the “neutral zone.” The old is when life is what life is and we are not complaining because it’s normal. Then something will happen, a death, a divorce, a new opportunity, which changes our old comfortable world. The in-between is uncomfortable because it is no longer the “old,” but neither is it quite yet the “new.” However, this neutral zone of disorientation can be just what we need to grow, to come to new understandings, to get out of old ruts, etc. For some this in-between time can be excruciatingly painful. But often disorientation, in time, gives way to reorientation: a death becomes sweet memories; a loss gives way to new gains; and that which was old is given new life.

Personally, I have found thinking of life in terms of these three categories helpful. I experience life sometimes, as it should be. Things are in place. Life is good. Psalm 23 is true and the Lord really is my shepherd. However, sometimes, and more times than I would like perhaps, life is hard, disconnected, chaotic. With Psalm 23 I walk through the deepest, darkest valley. I don’t like those times but I do usually grow closer to God through them. Then disorientation gives way to new life and I find, again with Psalm 23, a table prepared before me, my head anointed and my cup full, desiring nothing more than to live in God’s house forever.

Lent is the perfect time to reflect on this. Lent is the “neutral zone” between Advent and Resurrection Sunday. You therefore might find the language of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation useful even now.

For further reading, see Walter Brueggemann’s Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1994) and Spirituality of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002); William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (2nd ed.; Cambridge, Mass.: De Capo, 2004).

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3 thoughts on “Re-Dis-Orientation”

    1. Randy, I’m teaching a mini-workshop on the Psalms at the end of the month and will be using the categories there as well. I find they are really helpful!

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