Praying with the Psalms – Why Pray the Psalms?

So why pray the Psalms at all?  Why would repeating the words of poems written hundreds of years ago by persons whose experience is foreign to ours help us draw closer to God?  The answer to those questions could stretch a lot longer than a blog post, but let me offer a few thoughts that I believe are compelling.

The Psalms were the prayer book of ancient Israel.  They were vital to the pattern of synagogue worship that nurtured Jesus, all of the first disciples and the apostle Paul.  When we pray the Psalms, we are quite literally walking in the footsteps of Jesus.  The words of the Psalms provided the grammar of prayer that are the foundation of early Christian worship.  Through these songs of faith, Jesus learned to pray and worship the Father.  What better avenue for you and I to learn the same thing?

Throughout the book of Psalms, the whole range of human experience and emotion are explored in the context of conversation with God.  Joy, sadness, grief, betrayal, anger, relief, love, the desire for revenge and more are all expressed in bold and raw fashion in the words of these ancients songs and prayers.  Praying with the Psalms teaches the believer not to censor themselves in the presence of God.  It encourages honesty and realistic self-examination before God.  These are not hook-filled, catchy tunes to give the faithful a warm fuzzy.  At times the Psalms are filled with anguish and confusion, asking God questions such as why and for how long.  If we are going to grow in prayer, we must bring our whole selves to God and pour out who we are and what we are feeling.  The Psalms give us a language to do just that.  But the Psalms do more than just give us an outlet to vent to God.  They put those human experiences in the context of the larger story of God’s love for His people.  They contextualize grief and joy in the rhythms, not just of human life, but of God’s divine purposes. It embeds our story in the biggest story of all.

Praying the Psalms joins us in the communion of the saints in a tangible way.  Even the most cursory study of the history of Christian worship demonstrates the centrality of the Psalms to the worship of the Church throughout all of history, in every corner of the globe.  When we pray the Psalms we join with the body of Christ that goes far beyond our own four walls, our own local church or even our own denominational (or non-denominational) background.  It knocks down the misconception that the life of prayer is merely private, that spiritual growth is simply a personal responsibility or an individual journey.  It is a participation in the building up of the body of Christ across all the boundaries of geography and time.

Praying with the Psalms provide for each of us a grammar for prayer and worship, a path to bring our whole selves before God and a plunge into the river of God’s work in His people across centuries and continents.  How do I pray with the Psalms?  Well, that’s for the next post.

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Praying with the Psalms

I’ve been a Christian for a long time.  Nearly 35 years in fact.  During that time frame there are many lessons that I’ve learned, forgotten, relearned and started all over again.  Maybe the most important lesson that fits into this category is the practice of prayer.  As a young believer it was exciting to be able to speak to God spontaneously, to say whatever was on my heart and mind.  As I heard others that I admired pray, I instinctively picked up the phrases, rhythms and expressions that I heard and saw them employ.  One thing that I didn’t do is use pre-written prayers or a specified program or liturgy for prayer.  In fact, with the exception of repeating the Lord’s Prayer during worship each Sunday, I tended to look down on the practice of using something that seemed “pre-packaged” or “rote”.  It seemed somehow less spiritual or authentic.  This idea stuck with me for many years.  I could not have been more wrong.

As years go by, my confidence in my own ability to spontaneously express my heart and mind to God in prayer has been tempered by seasons of life that have at times made it seem very difficult to pray at all.  Some days the words still seem to flow easily as I speak to God.  Other days easy would be the last word that I would use to describe the fluency of my prayer life.  It’s a great blessing to know that the effectiveness and maturity of my prayer life doesn’t depend on my own ability to put the right words together in just the right way.  God has graciously provided many resources that anyone can access to enrich and empower their life of prayer.  One of the most powerful of these resources is the Book of Psalms.

Over the next few posts I will discuss several topics relevant to why every believer (or the not-too-sure I’m a believer but I feel a desire to pray) should pray with the Psalms.  They are:

  1.  Why pray with the Psalms?
  2.  How does one use the Psalms in prayer?
  3.  What have I learned by praying with the Psalms?
  4.  Where does one start?

Let me finish this introduction to this rich topic with one thought.  Learning to pray is a life long process.  It’s the primary path to knowing God, truly knowing oneself and growing as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  It would be a tragedy to spend a lifetime failing to access the rich resources that God has provided for each one of us.  The Psalms are an invaluable tool for the journey.

Walking a Mile in Different Shoes

I have been thinking about an interesting phenomenon that I have experienced over the past few years.  Some of the my friends that I have known for awhile and quite a few that are newer friends were raised or came of age in environments that were very conservative politically and theologically. These environments actively discouraged any sort of questioning of what were considered the “correct” views.  As time went by, many of them had questioned and modified some of their theological and political views and had experienced both a sense of relief and freedom and also a degree of pushback and even ostracism from previous relationships as they went through this journey.  I frankly felt a sense of disconnect with their experiences as I heard of them.  Over time I came to understand that the disconnect I felt was that my own experience had been quite different.  I wasn’t raised in a theologically or politically conservative environment.  I was raised in a mainline protestant church until I was 16 that didn’t really leave much of a mark on my thinking one way or another and in a household that fairly apolitical – we didn’t really talk about politics at all.  In fact, my ruling philosophical outlook (such as it was) that had begun to emerge in my early adolescence was a strange mixture of hedonism (of the sex, drugs and rock & roll variety), generic Reaganism (for some reason I really liked Ronald Reagan and felt a vague, but strong sense of patriotism) and love of fantasy and science fiction.  Then I experienced a radical conversion to Christ at the age of 16 in, of all places, a charismatic United Methodist Church that carried with it very strong social and political conservatism.  From late adolescence to my mid-20s I pretty much accepted the entire thinking framework I received, theologically and politically but didn’t really live in any sort of culture warrior mode.  I went to school at Christ for the Nations, Tarrant County College and Howard Payne University (a Texas Baptist school that was quite orthodox theologically, but not necessarily conservative politically – actually pretty centrist).  I learned and thought through many things a bit at a time, but never in a comprehensive way and always in a very nurturing environment.  Questioning wasn’t discouraged by my parents or teachers or pastors – but honestly my questioning was fairly limited.

Then I went to seminary at Brite Divinity School at TCU and was beginning the process of candidacy for ordination in the United Methodist Church and for the first time felt a significant challenge to my theological (and by extension my political) viewpoints.  This was disorienting for me and in many ways quite scary.  I saw viewpoints that I held characterized as either out of touch or inadequate in some settings and downright dangerous and bigoted in others.  Viewpoints that I held as pretty uncontroversial were portrayed as controversial and those that I knew were controversial (such as being unequivocally pro-life in regards to abortion) were portrayed as ugly and hateful.  These challenges were generally done not a confrontational or threatening way – but in a philosophical and academic way.  I didn’t consider myself to be persecuted and didn’t suffer academic or professional harm (my grades were quite good and I sailed through the ordination process).  But I was viewed with suspicion or disregard by a not insignificant portion of my professors and denominational supervision and this was a new experience for me.  I think I stewarded the experience fairly well.  I didn’t become angry or reactionary but I do think I became wiser in the process.  I did change the way I thought about certain issues but as a whole I came through the experience relatively unchanged in the sense that I remained (and remain) theologically conservative (by that I mean holding to historic Christian orthodoxy) and politically conservative (although much more critical of the Republican Party and American politics in general and much more aware of where ideas come from and what they mean).  I did shed a good deal of legalistic baggage and have a much deeper understanding of the grace of God – but that was less because of a philosophical change and much more because of life experience and experiencing God’s love more deeply.

So back to the original thought.  When I sense a disconnect in what other people have experienced, the best response is not to discount their experience or compare it to my own.  It’s to let their journey be their journey and let my own be my own.  I can benefit from what they have experienced and learned along the way and hopefully they can benefit from mine as well.  But the bottom line on any of our journeys is this.  Is this bringing me closer to Christ?  Am I better positioned now to receive God’s love and grace for myself and to share that with others?  A corollary to this (and a good indicator of whether or not I am better positioned to be a good receiver and sharer) would be am I now more charitable in my dealings with others who think differently than I do.  Have I made peace with the baggage of my past without giving into bitterness?  Am I free to walk away from any relationships that were a part of that past that are toxic without guilt and hate?  And am I comfortable in my own skin – regardless of where I am now in the journey?

I have loved hearing the journeys of my friends as they wrestle with the good, the bad and the ugly of where they come from and I hope that I can be an encouragement to each of you along the way.

Learning to Love

I married late.  I was 34 years old (soon to be 35) when I married nearly 12 years ago.  This wasn’t entirely my choice as I certainly desired to get married before that age.  But I am truly glad things turned out the way that they did.  I get to share my life with Bonnie and that was worth the wait.  So although I have no regrets about how my path to matrimony unfolded, there are certainly lessons that I have began to learn in married life that I wish I would have learned earlier.

Last year The National Marriage Project released a report entitled “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America” , looking at (among other things) the fact that the average age of marriage has trended up significantly over the last few decades.  In general, people are waiting longer to get married.  There are certainly many factors involved in this trend and this blog post isn’t an attempt to analyze all of these factors or even to endorse the report or any of it’s conclusions.  But one observation did stand out to me in the report.  It is the tendency within American society to increasingly view marriage, not as a “cornerstone” event in one’s life, but as a “capstone” event.  What does that mean?  Simply put, it means that for many people in our society, marriage is not looked at as something that is done as a part of launching one into adulthood with parenting, building a house and other aspects of one’s adult life to follow, but as something one does once all other ducks are in a row (finishing one’s education, getting one’s career established, a degree of financial stability and independence, etc.).  This observation could drive all sorts of other discussion but one thing occurs to me most prominently when thinking through this.  What an odd way to look at marriage.

Think about it.  One certainly wants to be prepared for marriage in the sense of having a certain amount of maturity, having some prospects for making a living and at least a vague idea of what the desired future might look like.  But the truth is that even though I was in my mid-thirties when I finally tied the knot (to the relief of my parents and my friends), I had no idea what I was getting into.  By that, I mean that my understanding of what a husband’s love was truly all about was woefully incomplete.  In almost 12 years, I think that I just might be starting to gain a clue.  In Ephesians 5, the Bible explicitly compares the love of a husband for his wife to the love of Christ for His Church.  Good luck with that if it’s something that I have to come up with out of my own resources.  It’s humbling to say the least.  But being married to Bonnie has been an incredible journey in learning how to love.  Those lessons have come from all sorts of places (my wife, my parents, my children, friends, books, sermons the list could go on and on) but mostly from the experience of living it out day by day with the constant loving presence of the Holy Spirit living in me and in Bonnie.  Before I got married, I did think of marriage is some sort of destination – a goal to be accomplished (and for all too long in my life, something that seemed out of reach).  And getting married was certainly for me an occasion of great joy – one of the greatest events in my life.  But I do wish that I would have understood back then that the journey is way better than the destination.  I wish that I would have understood that nothing is wasted in God’s economy and that every moment of my life leading up to that event and since that event are part of the same journey.  That journey is a drama where God’s love is the central reality and the love that Bonnie and I share with one another has its truest meaning in its revolution around that reality.  Marriage isn’t an arrival.  It is a vocation.  And by that I don’t mean a job (although work is involved).  I mean that it is a calling, an integral part in the purpose God has for many, many lives.  I was complete in Jesus Christ before I married Bonnie.  But without her, my calling in Him could never be complete.

I am learning to love.  God is my Teacher.  Marriage is one of my primary classrooms.  Bonnie is my lab partner – or should I say dance partner (ironic for a guy who really can’t dance, huh)?  Who ever knew that learning could be so much fun?

Delighting in Honor

This past week my wife and I attended my company’s annual party.  It was a the House of Blues in Dallas and was an all around blast.  But what I enjoyed the most might be surprising.  We haven’t attended the company party in a couple of years and there are several friends that I work with who haven’t seen my wife in quite some time.  The universal reaction to her can be summed up in the words, “you look great!”.  I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment.  She does look great and I tell her that often.  But it was great to hear other people compliment my wife.  I loved watching Bonnie’s face when she was repeatedly praised.  There was a look of slight bewilderment mingled with a wide smile.  Bonnie is not a vain person who angles or manipulates to receive compliments or praise but like all of us she does like to be appreciated and noticed.  As her husband, however, there was no bewilderment on my face.  I loved hearing others vocalizing the sentiment that is in my heart.  Bonnie is beautiful, inside and out.  She works hard to stay in shape and eat right and that does show up in her appearance (and in her sculpted arms which were highlighted by her pretty dress).  But that appearance only accentuates the beauty that permeates her entire being.  It is a beauty that more than anything else is the result of a heart that is reflective of the great love of God.  And I am delighted when others notice and give her honor.

I think that may be because I have begun to learn that represents the heart of God toward His own Beloved, which is you and I.  It delights the heart of God to see ones He loves be honored.  When we notice the beauty in others and call attention to it, it doesn’t just please the person receiving the compliment, it delights the heart of God.  When we relate to one another in a way that reflects the heart of God, honoring others and delighting in the honor of others becomes normal.  How would our relationships change if we really grabbed hold of this?  What would the dynamics look like if we looked for ways to give honor to others and delighted in the giving and receiving of honor?  I think it would be wonderful.  It would treat mistakes and disappointments differently, to be sure.  It would soften the hard shell that I find myself walking around with from time to time for self-protection.

More than this, what if we grabbed hold of the idea that this is the heart of God toward us?  Would it change the way we approach God?  Would we hesitate to come to God when we screw up?  Or would we run all the more quickly to God knowing that His presence is the perfect place for our screw ups to be sorted out?  I am so grateful this is the heart of God for His people.  And that as we grab hold of it, it can become more and more of our heart toward ourselves and others as well.

Remembering

A great deal of life in Christ depends upon remembering.  Over and over throughout Scripture, God’s people are commanded to “remember the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 8:18 among many).  The central act in Christian Worship, the Eucharist, is commanded to be done “in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19).  One of the vital ministries of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian is to “bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26)  There is something vital to living that requires active memory of what God has done for us.  We are required to remember His words, His actions, His sacrifice.  Forgetting is equated in many places to disobedience, to idolatry, to disloyalty and faithlessness.  Why is remembering so important and why do we find it so difficult to keep top of mind the words and actions of our God?

A passage in the Narnian novel, “The Silver Chair” by C.S. Lewis gives an interesting perspective to this reality.  Aslan, the Christ-like Lion has given a task to Jill Pole, who along with Eustace Scrubb are tasked with the rescue of the lost Prince Rilian.  Jill has received very specific instructions (“signs”) that are crucial to the fulfilling of the mission.  After she has repeated and learned the signs, Aslan emphasizes their importance to her.

“But first, remember, remember, remember the signs.  Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night.  And whenever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs.  And secondly, I give you a warning.  Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly;  I will not often do so down in Narnia.  Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken.  Take great care that it does not confuse your mind.  And the signs which you have learned will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there.  That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances.  Remember the signs and believe the signs.  Nothing else matters.”

The air certainly is thicker here.  And our minds can certainly become confused.  And most of all, things are very rarely what they appear to be.  A great deal of the reason that remembering is so important is that the confusion of life alters our perception of reality.  We need fixed points to anchor our soul onto to maintain equilibrium.  And the ultimate reality is the reality of God’s words and God’s actions.  Our identity, our destiny and our course in daily life are shaped by this ultimate reality and our response to that reality.  Calling to mind, remembering, saying to ourselves over and over the “signs” of God’s goodness is perhaps the primary task we have in growing in Christ.  We don’t produce that growth on our own, but we certainly cultivate the ground for growth with our remembrance.  There are no shortage of other words, other signs or other appearances to provide us alternative narratives from which to live.  But all of these are skewed and in the final analysis, damaging or incomplete.  Remembering is a choice.  It is a discipline.  It is a way of life.  What will you remember today?  Forget what needs forgetting and remember what is most important to remember.  God’s thoughts, words and actions toward you are what is most worth remembering.

New

I love the beginning of a new year.  To be more specific, I love the thought of newness.  The idea of a clean page of paper, a new beginning, the opportunity to start over creates (or at least rekindles) great hope.  The older I get, the more that I appreciate the rhythms and seasons of life.  As the Preacher wrote in Ecclesiastes, for everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven (say that out loud without the words, “turn, turn, turn” running through your mind – I dare you).  People make resolutions at the beginning of a new year, but that isn’t what gives me hope.  Hope isn’t a time or a season for me.  It is a Person.  God gives times and reasons and is the Author of the rhythms of life.  He has many purposes, but for you and I He has one great purpose that the new year reminds me about.  He makes us new.  New is good, isn’t it?  We love receiving new things.  Watching my boys at Christmas demonstrates the joy of receiving something new in technicolor and stereo.

Maybe as we get older we lose a bit of that ability to receive something new with such abandon.  But we don’t have to.  That may just be my greatest aspiration for this new year.  To recover the capacity to receive God’s newness with greater joy and abandon.  Remember, in Christ we are a new creation (2nd Corinthians 5:17).  Not just our lives, but all of creation and history consumate in the newness of God.  Among the last words in all of Scripture God declares, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5).  Do you want that for yourself this year?  I know that I do.  It may just be that the key to experiencing this renewal is embracing the repetition of times and seasons in our lives that we take for granted.  God placed the capacity to receive within each of us, but all too often we let it become jaded and atrophied.  We don’t celebrate the newness that already surrounds us.  Each day, each breath, each smile from people that we love, each sunrise or raindrop is a gift, something new.  In a strange way, patience and novelty work hand in hand, as we experience the same things over and over, we are actually experiencing something new.

G.K. Chesterton, unsurpisingly, expressed something of the heart and character of God as the Great Renewer in a quote that I certainly can’t improve upon.

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

I want to experience more of the newness of God in my life and I think that the path to that involves the monotony of acknowledging and embracing the ultimate monotony of human experience, the presence of God.  If I tune my heart (or allow my heart to be tuned) to recognize His presence in the monotony of every moment, then it and I become new.  This really is what meditation is all about.  It is choosing to think deeply about God’s presence inhabiting this moment in my life.  Today, this year, let us choose it more often.