Friday, 21 November 2014

My Rule of Life: Pray the Psalms (1)

Image: Wolfgang Sauber via Wikimedia Commons
The Psalms. I hardly know where to begin.

Praying the Psalms is a key commitment in my Rule of Life simply because it's become so central to my whole life and to my walk with Christ. The Psalms have been my school of prayer for many years now (I pray through the Psalter every two weeks in my daily offices), and they've taught me a great deal about God, myself, and life. Here's a few of the lessons I've learned:

God speaks poetry. Every single line of every single prayer in the Psalms is poetry. And a great deal of the rest of Scripture is also poetry, particularly the prophetic books in which God speaks so voluminously. That's not an accident. Poetry is a language in which words and images matter. It speaks from the heart in the ancient sense - not just the seat of the emotions, but the very centre of a person's being. Poetry always tries to speak truth, even when it's difficult or painful. And poetry cares about beauty. It's no surprise, then, that God speaks poetry - truth from the heart, in words, images, and beauty - and that his people speak poetry back.

Prayer is for shattered people. The language of the Psalms is beautiful, but much of what is expressed is ugly. It's the truth of the human heart, after all, and the human heart can be dark and ugly. The Psalms are famously replete with shocking curses, maledictions, and expressions of anger, despair, and vengeance. And all this God quite deliberately gathered and placed in the centre of Scripture, as though to say: "Not only can I manage to hear this - I want to hear this. Bring your brokenness and open it to me."

Life is hard. No surprise there, of course. But to listen to some of my Christian friends you'd begin to wonder whether life wasn't simply one glorious blessing after another. It's striking that far more of the Psalms say, "Where are you, Lord?" or "Lord, give vengeance!" than say, "Praise the Lord!" That life is hard, unfair, unreasonable, difficult - we don't want to hear that. But the Psalms speak truth, so that's what the Psalms say.

God heals praying people. Not because praying people are more holy or more Christian. In fact, the people who pray hardest and longest are usually the most messed up, the most broken, the least holy. That's why they need so much prayer. But praying people have stopped trying to fix themselves and the world and have fallen to their knees in desperation. They have become completely open to God, and have nowhere else to turn. Their lives are accessible to the Spirit like never before, and in that moment the Spirit is most able to bring healing and salvation without us trying to resist. As Jesus put it, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." Those who, holding back on the mourning, try to fix the pain, are less open to comfort.

Churches don't always pray well. I love the Church, so this isn't a criticism, just an observation. Most prayers in most churches I've attended don't sound like the Psalms. There's not the same poetry and beauty, not the same gutsy honesty, not the same range of human experience reflected, not the same terrible openness of our own souls. They can be very good prayers (they're usually very nice prayers) but they don't sound at all like the Psalms. Which makes me wonder - why not?

Does any of this ring true with your experience? Got any favourite Psalms? Or passages you find particularly difficult? Have the Psalms helped you pray?

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