Praying the Psalms - How?
Throughout the Lenten season, Grace Immanuel is focusing on the Psalms in worship, in the Adult Bible Study Class, and through daily "praying the Psalms" for those who have committed to that discipline. So, how do we pray the Psalms? Those of us who are Protestant especially have a problem with this, since most of us lost the monastic tradition 500 years ago. I say that because the monks and nuns have carried on the tradition of praying through the Psalms for many centuries. I was raised with the idea that prayer was very personal, extemporaneous, and me talking (not listening). Plus, prayer was supposed to be intimate and sweet. You know, "Sweet Hour of Prayer," and all that. With that background, the Psalms can be shocking in their raw humanity and honesty about conflict. We may at times wonder - can this be "my" prayer? Here are some clues:
The Psalms are the "Book of Common Prayer" of Israel. They are corporate prayers, encompassing the experiences of a people. There are penitential psalms, festival psalms, coronation psalms, psalms of exile, psalms of joyous praise and psalms of dark despair. You are not only praying for yourself, but expressing the feelings and needs of others.
The Psalms are brutally honest about human feelings. Psalm 42, a psalm representing the prayer of the exiles in Babylon, says, "As a deer longs for a stream of cool water, so I long for you, O God. I thirst for you, the living God. when can I go and worship in your presence? Day and night I cry, and tears are my only food; all the time my enemies ask me, 'Where is your God?'" The sadness probably makes sense to us, but the anger in the Psalms is more troubling. Psalm 137 (another psalm from exile) famously ends with the curse, "Babylon, you will be destroyed. Happy is the one who pays you back for what you have done to us - who takes your babies and smashes them against a rock." Well. Let's be honest. Acting out such anger is not the Christian way, but the anger is well within our range is it not? Check facebook this week about school shootings - there is no shortage of grief and rage. Praying this kind of psalm is difficult, but it does place us inside the suffering and rage of others. Maybe compassion can begin in such a place.
The Psalms were actually the prayer book of Jesus. This is not just a cute theme. He was, after all, a Jewish teacher - devout in every way. He knew them all by heart, and they frequently came to his lips. Even on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" is the opening line of Psalm 22. Read the rest of that psalm sometime, and imagine Jesus praying the whole thing in the midst of his suffering.
The early church knew the Psalms and understood Jesus through the Psalms. The New Testament contains 93 direct quotes from the Psalms. Clearly the gospel writers and other apostles felt the psalms could express their new Christian path.
As I have mentioned, the monastic traditions have carried the Psalms in their cycle of daily prayer for centuries. The Anglican/Episcopal Book of Common Prayer does as well. In our era, many Christians who are not monastics but want a disciplined spiritual life incorporate the Psalms into a meditation practice which may include yoga, sitting meditation, and other readings.
The Psalms leave us with questions. They express the human condition, and the faithfulness of God. Any time your read "constant love" in the psalms, it means covenant love - the love of God which will not let us go. Yet, we do feel abandonment, defeat, crushing loss and confusion. Some psalms seem to indicate that for the faithful person, all will be well. Frankly, that is where I get hung up. Having a mother who was stricken by an incurable disease as a toddler forever colored my view on this. Terrible things happen in life, and faithful people suffer as much as anyone else. So, I appreciate even Psalm 88, which ends, "You have made even my closest friends abandon me, and darkness is my only companion." Sometimes even the harsh truth is refreshing.
Ultimately, the Psalms are about God's mercy. It is important for us to realize that Jesus was not "plan B," but rather the expression of God's eternal intention toward us. Listen to the poetic words of Psalm 30:5: "God's anger last a moment, God's favor for a lifetime, in the evening, a spell of tears, in the morning, shouts of joy."
Praying a Psalm re-orients our day - to the scope of history, to the sufferings and joys of others, to our own failings and yearnings, to the spirituality of Jesus himself, and to the steadfast love of God through it all. God's favor for a lifetime, indeed.
Christ's Peace, Greg