Praying the Psalms: Wisdom for the Journey

Scripture: Psalm 119:97-104

I remember going to this mini-golf course once on a beach vacation with some seminary friends.  This course featured a sign with an uplifting Bible verse at each hole; for example:

Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  –Matthew 7:13

It seemed a bit heavy for a mini-golf course, but Jesus did say it, and I guess there’s no arguing with that.

Regardless of the mildly questionable context, this verse in essence expresses the worldview of the biblical wisdom tradition.  There are two ways, this tradition tells us.  One is good, the other is wicked.  The way of the good leads to blessing, and the way of the wicked leads to destruction.  The world is as simple as that.

Proverbs is one of the main places in the Bible we come across this tradition.  If you read Proverbs, the world makes sense.  Raise up your children in a certain way and they will continue in that way (22:6).  A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich (10:4).  The desire of the righteous ends only in good, the expectation of the wicker in wrath (11:23).  These are things that experience tells us is true…some of the time.

Over the past couple weeks I’ve been talking about the ancient practice of praying the Psalms, which we know Jesus did, and which I am trying imperfectly to make my practice too.  When we pray the Psalms, we might find that many of the words that cross our lips come out of this same tradition and worldview.  For example, starting with Psalm 1:

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked,

Or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;

But their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.

In all that they do, they prosper.

The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

There are two ways.  One is good, the other is wicked.  The way of the good leads to blessing, the way of the wicked leads to destruction.  The world is as simple as that.

When it comes to praying psalms like this, I’d rank them somewhere between the beautiful hymns of praise we started with in this series, and the potentially very objectionable imprecatory psalms that ask God to curse our enemies.  Wisdom psalms are kind of nice.  It’s a nice world that they depict.

But I do have some questions.

Can I really say with integrity that this is how the world works?  Can I say that in the wake of the shooting in Orlando, that people generally get what they deserve?  Can I say that as I look at many of our politicians and world leaders, that the way of the wicked comes to ruin?  Can I say that as I look at the wealth and poverty around me, that it’s all a result of work ethic and not of privilege?

In our real-life world, prayers like that sound kind of glib.  They’re nice, they’re just not real.

My second question is why these psalms often make the person praying them sound kind of self-righteous.  Take Psalm 119 which Mary read a few minutes ago.   “Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is always with me,” the psalmist writes.  “I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your decrees are my meditation.  I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.”

Really?  And I’m humbler, too!

And, “I hold back my feet from every evil way,” he says a few verses later.  “I do not turn away from your ordinances.”  Really?  What about all that stuff we believe about how all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God?  Are you trying to say you’ve never strayed from that narrow path?  That doesn’t seem like the kind of prayer that God really wants to hear.

So those are some of my questions about praying these kinds of psalms.  But I am praying them, anyway, because I feel like Jesus’s prayer book is probably good enough to be my prayer book, and as I’ve said before, when something challenges me, it’s often because there is more there for me to chew on than I’ve gotten to yet.

As for the first question, about whether in today’s world we can really pray like we believe there are two paths and they both lead exactly where they’re supposed to, well, I have to remember that the biblical authors weren’t dumb or naïve, and they didn’t live in a perfect world either.  One of my seminary professors used to say that at the gathering of wisdom writers Job and Ecclesiastes were the ones chain smoking in the back of the bar.  Those books dare to challenge the conventional wisdom that the world is ordered as it should be and everything happens for a reason.  That’s part of what makes the Bible such a beautiful conversation of faith.  But there are psalms that reflect that challenge to an ordered worldview, too—like all of the ones where the innocent psalmist is being hounded by his enemies or persecuted or seems to be close to death.  As I’ve said before, one powerful thing about the Psalms is they truly express the full spectrum of human experience.[1]

And as for the second question, does God find me a bit insufferable when I pray something like, “Oh God, I am wiser than all my elders!”, I have to think maybe that’s not really what the psalmist means.  This psalm isn’t specifically attributed to or associated with David, but many of the Psalms are, including ones that sound a little like this, and David certainly knew he was a sinner.  David knew what it meant to step off that narrow path.  In the end, those words aren’t about my righteousness—they are about the beauty and power of God’s law.

And that’s why I think there is actually a lot these wisdom psalms have to offer.  For one thing, there IS some wisdom in the image of two paths, even if the image is overly simplistic.  We need to know, to have ingrained in us, that you reap what you sow, even if it only pans out like 60% of the time.  We need to know that hard work, in general, is a better path than laziness, and treating people with kindness, in general, will make us more popular than treating people rudely, and that honesty, in general, is the best policy.  These are things that are true—to a degree.

I read one book in which the author knew a recovering addict, who said he thought at one time that he could “live comfortably in two radically different worlds.”  In one he was a functional human being.  In another he was an addict.  Finally, he said he realized, “my two worlds can no longer coexist.  There really are two distinct paths for me.”[2]

I think of some of the people I know who I have visited in jail, and how they say as they sit there on the other side of that glass, “This is the chance I needed, and this time things are going to be different.  I know it’s going to be hard, but this time things are going to be different.”  And my prayer for them is that when they get out, when they are back in this very complicated and broken world, that God will help them stick to that narrow path, because I believe they will find blessing there.

But that kind of prayer is a prayer for me, too.  Life may be a lot more complicated than just choosing between two paths, one good, one bad, but in a sense there are always two paths I can take: each step of the way, I can choose God, or I can choose me.  I can choose bitterness, or I can choose grace.  I can choose fear, or I can choose hospitality.   Every step of the way.  Two paths.  But in order to follow the right one I have to remember, constantly, which is the one I love.

And that’s the other reason I find it meaningful to pray prayers like these: because they remind me that it’s not just enough to follow God’s law, I need to love it.

“Oh, how I love your law!” is how this section of Psalm 119 begins.  “It is my meditation all day long.”  And the verses that follow—it makes me wise, it gives me understanding—aren’t really about me.  They are a continuation of the psalmist’s love song to God’s law, God’s way, God’s teaching.

“Oh, how I love your law!”  Have you ever exclaimed something like that?

As Christians, especially, “God’s law” is not something we are necessarily taught to love.  We are taught that God’s law was the old way, that Jesus is the new way, that love and grace are the new way.

But just like Jesus prayed the Psalms, Jesus loved God’s law, too.  “I have come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it,” he says.  When Jesus walked on earth and showed us what it meant to love one another, he was showing us what God’s law looked like in action, the way it was supposed to.

Personally, I think a lot about God’s law, as made visible to us in the life of Jesus, and how I should follow it.

I don’t know that I would often say I love it.  More often it’s something I believe in, but I fail at, and failing at it makes me despair of ever following it like God wants me to.

But the Psalmist isn’t worried about all that.  The Psalmist is too busy singing a love song.

And I love that.  And I want those words to be mine.  And when I pray them, I get to sing along.

At the end of these eight verses the Psalmist writes, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”  When Jews celebrate Shavuot, the holiday that corresponds to our Pentecost, they eat sweet things like cheesecake to remind them that the Torah is sweet, like milk and honey.  I like that image too.  God’s law, the way God wants us to follow, is sweet and delicious, like cheesecake.

The thing is, to love something you have to know it.  I don’t mean memorizing the Ten Commandments or even the Sermon on the Mount.  I do mean being staying connected to God enough through prayer and Bible reading and worship and study and conversation that what God wants from you becomes a part of you.

That’s part of what I’m trying to do by praying the Psalms three times a day, even if I don’t always accomplish that: to stay connected to God throughout my day so that God’s word and God’s love become a part of me.  So that I learn the words of the love song and it becomes true because I say it is, over and over.  So that the path before me, or at least the next step, is a little clearer.

I think of that in the wake of the shooting in Orlando.  It is clear to me that all is not right with the world.  People do not get always get what they deserve.  People do not deserve to live in fear.  But I can’t change that, fundamentally.  I can’t singlehandedly order this world the way it seems like it should be ordered.

But what I can do is choose the right path in front of me.  I can choose the path that corresponds to God’s law of love and grace.  In a case like this I think that means something like standing up for LGBT people who feel like they do not have a safe place to go.  It means trying to make sure church is that place, even while recognizing it has often not been, subtly or unsubtly.

Praying these wisdom psalms won’t make a broken and complicated world black and white.  They won’t change the disorder of this world.  But as I pray them more, what they will do is remind me to live every day seeking that good path, even when it’s not clear.  What they will do is help me to love that path even as I figure out just what it looks like.  Those prayers won’t change the world, but my hope is that maybe they will change me.

[1] Walter Brueggemann describes the Psalms as taking us through a process of orientation-disorientation-new orientation.  Psalms of orientation depict the world as it should be.  Psalms of disorientation come when everything seems to fall apart.  Psalms of new orientation reflect the psalmist’s new understanding of God’s blessing and goodness once the psalmist has emerged from the darkness.  Unfortunately, the book of Psalms doesn’t present these three different kinds of psalms in order—but again, maybe life is more complicated than that, anyway.

[2] Denise Hopkins, Journey Through the Psalms

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Praying the Psalms: Help Along the Way

Scripture: Psalm 35:1-10

Last week I began to talk about the practice of praying the Psalms, which is my practice, or at least a practice I am currently aspiring to, but which is also an ancient practice, from Jews gathered in the Temple and then the synagogues to the early Christians gathered in synagogues and then churches to the monastics of the Middle Ages whose life of common prayer centered on the Psalms, to Christians who continue the practice today.  I talked about psalms of praise and how I need to pray those prayers, to have those words put in my mouth, as a reminder of how much bigger God is than me and how much bigger God’s story is than my story, whatever I happen to be going through that particular day.

Those prayers of praise are a nice way to start my day—or to refocus me in the middle of it, or to conclude it.

But not all of the Psalms are so nice.  Some of them are pretty dark.  A few weeks ago you heard the words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Those are the words Jesus made his own as he died on the cross.  Other psalms of lament beg God for healing from a grave illness, or for general protection.

It’s OK that those psalms aren’t so nice sounding.  We need those psalms too, and when we make a practice of praying them, no matter whether we are feeling nice that day or not, we know their words will be there for us when we need them.

But then there are some psalms where it gets really awkward.

Like Psalm 25 which we heard today: “Let my enemies be like chaff before the wind,” the Psalmist writes, “the angel of the Lord driving them on.”  “Let their way be dark and slippery,” he continues, “with the angel of the Lord pursuing them.”

If you’re like me, maybe you pause before praying those words.  Maybe you start to feel a little bit uncomfortable.  This is one example of what scholars call an imprecatory psalm—a psalm that prays for God to curse our enemies.

It gets worse than Psalm 35, too.  If we made a practice of praying through the Psalms in order, for example, we would eventually come to Psalm 69, where the Psalmist prays, “May the eyes of my enemies grow dim so that they cannot see; may their loins collapse continually.”  (Colorful, right?)  And then in a while we would come to Psalm 109, also speaking of the Psalmist’s enemy:

May his children be orphans, it goes; his wife a widow.

May his children wander from their hovels, begging in search of bread.

May his creditor seize all his possessions; may strangers plunder his wealth.

May no one show him mercy.

May he be clothed in a curse like a garment.

And, again, if you’re like me, that uncomfortable feeling in the pit of your stomach continues to grow.

But if we were inclined to read on, in a few days or so we would come to Psalm 137, a psalm written during the Babylonian exile, the one where the Psalmist laments that it is impossible to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.  “Fair Babylon, you predator,” this psalm concludes. “A blessing on those who repay you in kind what you have inflicted on us.  A blessing on those who seize your babies and dash them against the rocks.”

As I said, psalms like this make me physically uncomfortable.  I don’t feel like this is the kind of thing that I should be praying.  For one thing, there are truly not that many people I wish these kinds of things on, and if there is, on any given day, I’m not sure that’s the kind of thing I should be encouraged to voice out loud.  For another thing, didn’t Jesus say something about loving our enemies and blessing those who curse us?  What would Jesus pray?

But, as I said last week, Jesus did pray the Psalms.  Did he pray these psalms?  Well, he does actually quote Psalm 35 in John 15, but only to say, “They hated me without a cause.”  Would he want us to pray the rest of that psalm now?  I don’t know.

Lots of Christians have asked that question.  You can tune into the debate with a quick Google search.  Vatican II even removed some of the worst offenders from the Catholic liturgy.  There is some ground for simply saying enough, these psalms were the product of a different time; they are certainly not appropriate for a more enlightened age—at least not in our practice of prayer.

I do truly believe that we need to be questioning of tradition.  At the same time, I also know that sometimes, when something makes me uncomfortable, it means there is something there for me to chew on.  Jews and Christians throughout the centuries have found meaning in praying the Psalms, even these.  Just as we shouldn’t accept tradition uncritically, maybe there’s a reason to not dismiss it so easily.

So here are a couple ways to think about praying these imprecatory psalms.

For one thing, they are honest.  One thing you have to say about the Psalms is that they cover the full range of human emotion and experience, from praise and elation to the valley of the shadow of death.  The prayers of the Psalmists are often a lot bolder in their honesty, in fact, than we ever dare to be to God.  Maybe there’s a challenge to us there.

Sometimes, we want to curse our enemies.  We’re human.  It’s just a thing.  Maybe sometimes that means secretly hoping just for a moment that the driver who cut us off will get in a crash up ahead.  Or maybe it means hoping that the person who broke our heart will go on to have a terrible, terrible life without us.

There was a country song that came out in 2009 by Jaron and the Long Road to Love called “Pray For You.”  In it the singer describes going back to church after a breakup:

So I listened to the preacher as he (or she!) told me what to do

He said you can’t go hating others who have done wrong to you

Sometimes we get angry, but we must not condemn

Let the good Lord do his job, and you just pray for them

So far, so good, right?  Then we get to the chorus:

I pray your brakes go out running down a hill

I pray a flower pot falls from a window sill

And knocks you in the head like I’d like to

I pray your birthday comes and nobody calls

I pray you’re flying high when your engine stalls

I pray all your dreams never come true

Just know wherever you are, I pray for you.

Yeah.  Not a lot about the human experience has actually changed since the Psalms were written.

As one blogger pointed out, why should we pretend we are better than thinking things like this?[1]  And you see, when I pray the Psalms and those words come out of my own mouth, I can’t pretend I’m better than that anymore.  Maybe an honest “God, please smite my enemy” is actually a better prayer than a self-righteous “God, please help them see the light,” or the classic, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.”

And when I pray those words, maybe what I am doing is lifting them up to God so that I’m not holding onto them anymore.  I’m not taking revenge.  I’m giving those feelings to God and trusting God to do with them what God wills.  God, smite my enemies, I pray: and I am released from doing it myself.

But then maybe these psalms are supposed to be more than just therapeutic.  Maybe they’re not just about getting something off my chest.  Maybe they are about trusting in a God of justice.  The psalm of praise we read last week reminded us that God is a God who feeds the hungry and lifts up the downtrodden.  God must care about the right and wrong we do to each other in this world.

Maybe sometimes I’m the downtrodden, and this is my cry for help.

I do think we need to be careful to not simply play the victim or always blame others for our lot in life.  But injustice does absolutely exist and sometimes we may be on the receiving end of it, and, even though we ultimately trust in God for justice, there’s nothing wrong with reminding God about it every once in a while.

Or maybe these psalms can also be prayers on behalf of others, against societal ills, not just my personal enemies.  Maybe I when I pray these psalms, in fact, I’m supposed to be reminded of those who have the most reason to pray them, even if it’s not me.

Lauren Winner, the writer who inspired me to start making a practice of praying the Psalms, said she was uncomfortable with certain psalms that depicted God laughing at people.  God’s laughter in the Bible is not a genial kind of laugh.  It’s a menacing laugh reserved for the wicked—an uncomfortable image.  But one practice Lauren had was to sometimes read psalms in a new place and listen to how that changed how they sounded.  And so one day she took Psalm 37, where God “laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day will come,” to read it in “a place of wickedness.”  She sat in the car in front of a friend’s house—rather, the house where a friend had lived with an abusive husband who nearly beat her to death.  And in those words Lauren heard God laughing in the face of her friend’s abusive husband.  And she said, “slowly, it became consoling.  It became consoling to picture God laughing in the face of those who oppose God’s justice and God’s peace.”[2]

One of the big things in the news this week has been the story of Brock Allen Turner, the Stanford student and swimmer who raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, was convicted on multiple counts of sexual assault, and got sentenced to six months in jail because the judge thought prison would be a terrible waste of Turner’s future.  My social media news feed resounded with the outcry against Brock Turner, the judge who sentenced him, and Turner’s parents who wrote the judge letters about how unfair this all was to their son.  “We are going to put you in a new kind of jail,” wrote one blogger.  “We are going to splatter your name and face across social media so that everyone knows who you are and what you look like.  So that everyone knows what you’ve done.”[3]

Most of this outcry was not written in the form of prayer, but to me, some of it almost read like a psalm, in its almost vengeful insistence that justice must be done, and that the enemies of justice must be brought to account.  And I don’t know what Jesus would say about the whole thing—I’m sure he’d want us to love even Brock Turner—but I kind of got it.  The Psalms won’t let us be naïve about the brokenness or even wickedness that is present in our world.

I also read last night that a senator from Georgia recommended praying for Obama, that his “days be few.”  He was paraphrasing Psalm 109: that’s the one that goes on to pray, “May his children be orphans.”  And that honestly sent chills up my spine.  I don’t think we are intended to pray these words about everyone we dislike or everyone we disagree with, or even everyone we think does the wrong thing.

But then after that I had to go back and think again about if and how that applied to Brock Turner.  If psalms like that are legitimate to pray: when? And I honestly don’t know.  In the end, I think I’m still worried that praying in this way does nothing more than justify, even deify, my own vengeful feelings, and my own ideas about what constitutes justice.

But there is also another way to pray these psalms.

Maybe my real enemies are not always who I think they are.  They are not always the driver who cut me off or the person who broke my heart or even the men who feel entitled to the bodies of women and judges who let them get away with it.

Sometimes, my real enemies are the ones inside of me.

Their names are things like Insecurity, and Anger, and Entitlement, and Selfishness.  Or their names are things like Depression and Anxiety, things apart from us that nevertheless hold us in their power.  Perhaps one of them is even a desire for human vengeance.

This is how I tend to pray the psalms that curse my enemies on any given day, because those are the kinds of enemies I can feel present with me, every day.  I don’t necessarily believe that people are out to get me, most of the time, or that they are lying in wait for me, or that I have been gravely wronged.

But I do believe that my own insecurity has the power to destroy relationships.  I do believe that selfishness has me in its grip.  And it does often feel like anxiety has set a trap, lying in wait, ready to do me in.

On most days, those are the enemies I need God to send down some lightning bolts on.

And so I pray: “Let them be like chaff before the wind, the angel of the Lord driving them on.”

Maybe even: “May their loins collapse continually.”  And maybe even: “May no one show them mercy.”

Maybe, one day, I will need to pray one of those psalms more literally, and then I will have those words at my disposal, even while knowing and trusting that God’s grace is for all of us—even for my enemies.

But in the meantime, these are prayers that help me remember that on this journey of life and faith, I need God’s help along the way.  That whoever or whatever my enemies may be, they’re not going to fight themselves—but neither do I have the power to fight them alone.

I need God to be the kind of God who takes hold of shield and buckler and rises up to help me.

When I pray these psalms, I trust God to be present and fight for me even when it seems like God isn’t present.  When I pray these psalms, I trust God to fight the battles I can’t—for justice, whatever that may look like, and against the powers that lay hold of me.

Maybe that’s why people have continued to pray these prayers, and it’s why I do, too.

[1] http://www.ibenedictines.org/2013/10/16/the-cursing-psalms/

[2] Lauren Winner, Wearing God, p. 188-189.

[3] http://abandoningpretense.com/2016/06/we-with-the-pitchforks.html

Praying the Psalms: Praise in the Morning

Scripture: Psalm 146

Lately I have been trying out the spiritual practice of praying the Psalms.  I was going for something simple: just one psalm, three times a day.  I got this little book that is, in theory, small enough to take with me wherever I go.  And, in theory, I read a psalm, silently or out loud, but prayerfully, directed at God, when I begin my day, around lunch, and either when I end my work day or when I go to bed, depending on when I remember.

So far, this is a very imperfect practice, especially when my day is anything other than on a normal schedule.  But my thought was to have something that interrupted the rhythm of my day to periodically refocus me on God, no matter where I am or what I’m doing.  Something that didn’t have to be a long, drawn out thing.  I’ve tried something like this before: I’ve tried to do pretty much the same thing with the Liturgy of the Hours, which includes the reading of psalms, but is longer and more similar to what monastics do when they come together to pray.  The thing is for that you either need to carry around a big book, or use an app, and my app wasn’t always updating correctly, so I thought I would go even simpler, and give it a try.

This practice has gotten me thinking about the book of Psalms.  Here I often draw on the Psalms for a call to worship; once in a while we’ll use them elsewhere in the service; but it’s not often we really stop and reflect on what they mean.  (Once in a while, maybe, we do—I know James preached on Psalm 22 last week while I was away.)  And, it’s not often that we really talk about praying them.

Personally, I decided to give praying the Psalms a try because all the cool people were doing it, or at least one of my favorite writers talked about doing it.  She also admitted that it was an imperfect practice of hers too.  She said that some days it really feels like prayer, and other days it hardly even counts as reading.[1]  I thought, well as long as that’s OK, that sounds like something I could do.  That sounds like a bar I could clear.

Praying the psalms is a practice as old as the psalms themselves, though that is a large range, because there are 150 of them and they were written and collected over a long period of time.  But they were written to be prayed, or sung, and for the most part, they were written to be prayed or sung together, in a gathered community.  They are not personal devotional poetry; they are, in one author’s words, “the hymnbook or prayerbook of the…Temple.”[2]  Many of them, if you look in the Bible, still come with instructions about how to sing them or what tune they go to, though of course we don’t know what those tunes sound like now.  The Psalms were the liturgy through which the gathered people spoke to God, and in turn heard God speaking back to them through those same words.

By the time of Jesus the Temple had been torn down once and built back up again, and in the meantime, synagogues had formed, where people could gather to worship more locally without making it all the way to Jerusalem.  And in worship in the synagogues, people prayed and sang the psalms.  I’ve heard the Psalms referred to as “Jesus’ prayer book,” because that’s the prayer book he would have known.  He actually quotes from them pretty extensively in the Gospels—which I think goes to show how much the prayers we pray can shape the way we interpret the world around us.

In the earliest days of the church, worship was still held in the synagogue, and the gathered community continued to pray, or sing, the psalms together.  They also, like Jesus, continued to use those prayers as a lens through which to see the world around them.  Paul, for example, quotes from them too, and uses them to tell people about the life and significance of Jesus.  Again, that’s what inevitably happens when the prayers you pray become part of who you are: you start to see the world differently through them.

When the monastic movement in the early Middle Ages took off, monks or nuns lived in communities where they would work or study and come together periodically throughout the day for prayer (a lot more than three times) and these prayer services were always centered around the psalms.  St. Benedict ordered things so that you would get through all 150 of them in a week.

I am personally not so ambitious, but I do really like the idea of praying repeatedly in such a way that those prayers shape who I am and how I see the world around me.  And I really like the idea of praying these prayers, if not always in actual gathered community, at least in spirit with so many Christians who have come before me and who continue to pray them, around the world, today.

I know not everyone does like the idea of words being put in their mouths.  I remember having a conversation with this one guy in seminary about written liturgy like that—he was a Baptist—and I tried to argue, “Sometimes someone else’s words are just the right ones!”  And he said, “I never feel like they’re the right ones.”

But I remember there was this one time I was putting together worship for the week at my last church, and I was using a book of prayers someone had written (it wasn’t Psalms) and that day I happened to be in a really cranky mood.  Which is great for planning an uplifting worship service.  Well, I came across a prayer of confession as I was doing this, and it started off, “God, we confess that we are grumpy and unsatisfied.”

And I was like, “Wait a minute, I’m grumpy and unsatisfied!”

And in that moment, someone else’s prayer became my prayer, even though I hadn’t thought to pray it before.

To me that’s exactly why a practice like praying the psalms is meaningful.  I don’t think it replaces honest, free-form conversation with God.  But, honestly, praying is hard!  I don’t always know what to say or how long I should go on.  Sometimes, mostly when I am in need, the words flow, and other times they don’t.  And even in those times when the words flow it can be hard to think beyond myself and my own feelings and remember all the other things and people I should be praying for.  It’s a lot of pressure.

But when I pray the psalms, there’s none of that pressure.  The words are right there for me.  I don’t have to come up with them when I don’t have them.

Sometimes the words resonate just right with my mood and where I am that day.  Sometimes I’m in a low place and the words that are put in my mouth are “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and I mean them.  Other times they don’t strike the right chord at all.  Sometimes all is right with the world and I find myself complaining to God about how I am this close to the grave if God doesn’t come and do something; or sometimes I’m in that low place and saying hallelujah, praise God.

But those times when the prayer doesn’t quite resonate are important, too.  Because I would not praise God when I am grumpy and unsatisfied if left to my own devices.  Nor would I perhaps remember that I need God’s help on days when I’m feeling on top of the world.

One of the beautiful things about the Psalms is that they cover such a broad spectrum of life and emotion.  There are psalms of lament, cries for help and deliverance from sickness or enemies.  There are psalms of thanksgiving, and psalms of pure praise for nothing in particular.  There are psalms for the coronation of a king, and even for ordinary people approaching the Temple, about to enter holy ground.  There are psalms of wisdom, extolling God’s law.

Over the next few weeks we’ll look at a few of these kinds of psalms that we might come across in our prayers.  Praise seemed like a good place to start.  I called this week “Praise in the morning,” but of course there’s no reason to only praise God in the morning; I just happen to think that’s a pretty solid way to start a day.

It’s a little embarrassing to say that praise is one of those things that really needs to be put in my mouth.  For one thing, I am often grumpy and unsatisfied (especially in the morning.)  For another thing, unless I’m in nature looking at some amazing sunset or mountain view, I kind of feel silly just telling God how good God is, as if God needs to hear it.

But the Psalmist, or psalmists, aren’t shy about telling God how good God is, and so when I pray their prayers of praise, neither am I.

And the thing is it’s not God who needs to hear it.  It’s me who needs to say it.

I find those psalms of praise a great way to start my morning, especially, because one of the things they remind me of is how much bigger God is that me, and how much bigger is this story that I am a part of than whatever is going on that day in my life.

Take Psalm 146, which we read a few minutes ago.  Here is my thought process when I pray a prayer like this:

“Praise the Lord!  Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live!” the Psalmist writes, starting off.  Wow. Will I?  I guess just saying so is a start.

“Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals,” he continues, and I have to ask myself who my trust is really in.

“Happy are those whose hope is in the Lord their God!” the Psalmist writes.  “Who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever, who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry.”  Again, a reminder that God is so much bigger than me.  Bigger, in fact, than I sometimes want to make God.  God is not someone who looks and thinks just like me; God is not mine to be manipulated for the things I want, as I am sometimes tempted to try to do.  Instead, God is the maker of all that is, keeper of promises, revealer of divine justice.

“The Lord sets the prisoners free,” the Psalmist continues.  “The Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous and watches over strangers; he upholds the orphan and widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”

All things that are hard to believe and profess, perhaps, looking around us; that the Lord loves the righteous and lifts up the downtrodden, but believable or not, when I pray Psalm 146, those words become my words and my prayer.  Some days I might be tempted to tell the story differently, but it’s not my story that matters, it’s God’s story, and it’s bigger than mine, and that is how it goes: in God’s story the hungry eat and the blind see and the bent over stand up straight and justice wins.  And that is the story, that is the version of reality, that I am called to live into.

And I think it maybe begins with just saying those words like I believe them.

And, with knowing that I am far from the first to pray those words and I will not be the last.  They are the words of a community worshiping and praising God throughout space and time, words that shaped and continue to shape that community, words that keep that community believing in a big, powerful, awesome God with a powerful, awesome story no matter how this one particular day may be unfolding.

Praise God for that.

[1] Lauren Winner, Wearing God

[2] New Interpreter’s Bible: Psalms, Introduction