(In The Life Of The Church)
Prayer and Psalms
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I find myself talking about prayer a lot. When prayer has come up in conversations I’ve had with ubcer’s over the past couple of years, it has usually been in the context of either a frustration about what the point of prayer is or how one is supposed to pray in the first place—the why and the how of prayer. It’s common enough that it seems newsletter-worthy, but it’s going to take several newsletters to begin to flesh this out.
I’d like to start with the “why" of prayer, but I’m going to start with the "how" instead. Because I think that there is an impulse in us--consciously or not, reasoned or otherwise--that brings prayer into our lives before we even care why we are doing it.
At the moment, the way I’ve been thinking about the “how” of prayer is as a dance between specific structure and honest vulnerability; between form and feeling.
In his book Under the Unpredictable Plant, Eugene Peterson talks about the prayer that Jonah offers from the belly of the fish. He points out, fascinatingly, that this prayer is entirely composed of language from the Psalms. Peterson says, “Jonah had been to school to learn to pray, and he prayed as he had been taught. His school was the Psalms.”
Why would you look to the Psalms as a school of prayer? There are probably a few ways to answer that.
First, praying language that is established in the Psalms allows one to tie oneself to a long tradition of humanity grasping for words with which to address God. It is an implicit reminder that the Divine-human relationship is not summed up best in the Divine-me relationship.
And that’s important because 1) we might otherwise fool ourselves into thinking that we experience special kinds of doubt, pain, joy, thanks, etc. (we don’t); and 2) if we tie ourselves to the history of the people of God, we are able to remind ourselves that, though we might be experiencing something in life for the first time, we have a vantage point in this Story from which we are able to look back on who God has been, in order to suspect who God will continue to be.
Second, using the Psalms as a “school” of prayer helps us address the near-universal concern of not knowing what or how to pray. It’s a starting place—a training ground. And we need this not so that we can pray hyper religious things, but just the opposite—so we see how to be our actual selves in our prayers.
This is sort of what Jesus is getting at when he criticizes the way that the Pharisees pray. It doesn’t take an especially righteous person to catch on to flashy lingo in a religious system that will send out the vibe that you are particularly adept at talking to God. Creating a mask to wear before God and people comes pretty naturally.
In the Psalms, alongside various kinds of thanks, we find deep lament, expressing feelings of abandonment, pain, and longing. We find a history of not putting on a mask when addressing God, but instead bringing vulnerability.
Most of the time I speak with someone who says they don’t know how to pray, what they really mean is they are angry or feel abandoned and they can’t think of anything nice to say to God. Which in fact means they have plenty to say, and are fully capable of praying, but they don’t think what they would pray is allowed.
But when we look at the Bible (and not even just the Psalms), I think we can rest assured that God can take it. We need not withhold any part of who we are.
So, if we have words of lament and are looking for permission to speak them to God, the Psalms offer it. But also, if we are in pain, yet don’t have the words to express it, the Psalms can offer us language to do so.
Take the opening of Psalm 13, for example:
How long, O Lord?
Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
The first time I needed words like this, I had never read this Psalm, so I sat and said nothing. [For the record, I think that was prayer too, and Paul talks about the Spirit interceding for us when our pain is too deep for words (Rom. 8:26, if you want to explore that further), but we’re talking about praying with words right now]. Had I been familiar with this Psalm, I likely would have taken up these words, or some version of them.
Since coming into contact with this Psalm, I’ve gotten much better at expressing the abandonment of those verses, but what Psalm 13 has been teaching me lately is how to take up the final two verses:
But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because the Lord has dealt bountifully with me.
Sometimes moving to the twilight of darkness is hard for me. And sometimes it feels like I don’t mean it. But I’d like to. So I say it anyway. Because there is a way to take on a tunnel-vision that confuses the weight of a particular moment with the full truth about life and God.
The Psalms have a way of revealing when our prayers are too one-dimensional, and they challenge us to bring a balance to our prayers that is ultimately more honest. They teach us to represent the whole of ourselves.
This is the dance of form and feeling that I mentioned earlier: we bring our experiences into conversation with the legacy of prayer in the Bible, seeking out forms, themes, and language, to offer prayers that say more than we might think we are capable of, and ultimately to speak more truthfully about who we are and who God is.
There’s so much more to say about this, but that’s going to have to wait for another week. As always, if you have any feedback, questions, or concerns about any of this, feel free to email email@example.com.
Meet Our Newest UBCer
Khoury Lev Ezekiel Loeung
Birthday: June 14
Birth Weight: 5 lb. 11 oz.
Birth Height: 19 inches
Enneagram Number: 2
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