6. How do we pray with the Psalms?
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Let us pray. Give ear to my words, O Lord; give heed to my sighing. Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I pray. Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me. Amen.
Though it seems like forever ago Chris and I were once the young parents of a child starting kindergarten. As that time in his life drew closer, Chris, being a teacher, and having a natural affinity for the person who would be entrusted with the task of trying to channel the energy of that perpetual motion machine named Michael, suggested that the challenge of learning a second language might just be the right thing to do.
In September 1982, Michael started school at Ecole Georges P. Vanier in Windsor. You can likely tell by even that snippet of French pronunciation, that despite four years of high school French I am devoid of any linguistic talent. Chris is at least 100 times more proficient in French than me, but she is far from bilingual. Which was a surprise to Michael’s kindergarten teacher until she realized that one of the classmates whom Michael befriended had been born in France to French parents and he was picking up that polished Parisian accent from her.
Let me make it plain why I told you that story this morning. Baptists are “people of the Book.” We trace our history through what was called the radical reformation. We value tradition, we think the creeds of the church have great value, but since the beginning of a people called Baptist, we have held that it is the Bible and only the Bible that is a sufficient rule for faith and practice.
I hold two things side by side when it comes to the Bible that are not in conflict for me—while each word of 66 books that make up the Hebrew and Christian scriptures has a human author, that each word was also written through the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit. Therefore when we listen to the scriptures being read in worship, when we grab a few minutes in the morning or at noon or at bedtime to read a few chapters or a few verses, when we gather in our groups to study the Bible, we are coming face to face with nothing less than the Word of God. That is my conviction.
I think it ought to strike us as vitally important then that through the inspiration of God we have at our disposal a book of prayers called The Psalms. In other words, we have a collection of prayers that were offered to God using the words that God inspired. It is as if God has said to his people, you are going to need words of praise, expressions of confession, cries of lament. There will be times when you simply will not know what to offer me as prayer. Let me help you. Here is a prayer book, a hymnal that will never, ever outlive its usefulness.
Now, you may not have this same sense of the inspiration of scripture, but I hope I have explained why I think it is vital when we talk about prayer to think about praying with the Psalms. It’s like listening in on the accent of God.
Have a look at the first of today’s texts, Psalm 13:1, 2. How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever? 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? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? You may want to take a look at this Psalm; you can find it on page 494 of the pew Bibles and page 844 of the large print edition.
One of the things I did not do as a parent was to give our children any assistance in crafting the content of their complaints about life in general and my parenting skills in particular. I figured they could get plenty of help from friends and siblings. As far as I can tell none of our kids lacked any measure of eloquence when it came to drawing attention to my failings. Yet there is something about our relationship with God that we at times think we cannot fully express the emotion, the despair that is within us. God then gives us the words that give us permission to take our complaint to the throne of heaven. God, have you forgotten about me or are you simply hiding from me? What is going on with you and me?
I began writing this sermon the week before Christmas. You may recall that was the week two hostages were killed in Sydney, Australia by a self-styled sheikh, who was a refugee from Iran and who had been charged last year as an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife. The day after that incident 132 students and 9 staff members were killed at a high school in Pakistan by Taliban fighters. I don’t know about you but I hardly know what to say to God about that sort of indiscriminate violence. But in the Psalms God gives me the words.
We also find words for our prayers in the second of our two texts. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted with me? Again look at the whole of this Psalm. Many of you will know the beginning of this prayer. As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. Here is an example of why it is important for us to pay attention to the whole counsel of God in the Psalms. If you take that first verse only, it can sound as if it is a word of gratitude for what is. Except, the poet asks when it might be that he will behold the presence of God, when he will no longer be nourished by his tears, when he will no longer be taunted by his enemies.
As he so often does for me, our Anglican friend Tom Wright expresses what is going on in these prayers. “Part of the strange work of the Psalms is to draw the terror and shame of all the ages together to a point where it becomes intense and unbearable, turning itself into a great scream of pain, the pain of Israel, the pain of Adam and Eve, the pain that shouts out, in the most paradoxical act of worship, to ask why God has abandoned it. And then of course the Psalms tell the story of strange vindication, of dramatic reversal, of wondrous rescue, comfort, and restoration” (The Case for the Psalms, p. 31).
We need the Psalms. We will be spiritually shaped in helpful, positive ways when we immerse our minds and souls in the richness of the Psalms. Let me give you some examples of what I’m talking about. As I am sure you can easily imagine the scripture text that is requested most often for a funeral is Psalm 23. There is nothing wrong with that. I include that text in most funerals even when it is not requested. These are words that we ought to know by heart. What is your favourite part of this prayer?
The line I return to again and again is verse 6. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life… There is a wonderful image in that verse. It is as if no matter how hard I try to avoid it, the goodness and mercy of God is going to pursue me; God is going to keep after me with nothing less than goodness and mercy. I have lost track of the number of times I have been encouraged and blessed by this promise from the Psalms.
Tom Wright tells a story from his student days in Oxford; like many in that city, Tom used a bicycle to get around. A bus was stopped ahead of him and another bus was coming in the opposite direction; there was just enough room for him to squeeze through he reasoned. But just as he accelerated one of the pedals snapped off the bike, Tom fell forward on to the handlebars, narrowly missing the oncoming bus. After walking back to his lodgings, feeling quite shaken, as the kettle was boiling he decided to read one of the Psalms for that day. Psalm 94 includes this sentence. When I thought, ‘My foot is slipping’, your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up. I will leave it up to you to make the decision about that being a coincidence. My point is that within the Bible’s prayer book there is something for every day and every circumstance.
Let me finish off today then by making some suggestions to you. As some of you know one of my spiritual habits over the past number of years has been to read the Bible through each year. I have decided to adjust that this year. I am going to read the whole of the Bible through this year and next but I am going to read the Psalms through twice each year. I would encourage you to do the same. It amounts to one Psalm per day except for Psalm 119 for which we take 22 days. Billy Graham once said that he read five psalms each day because they taught him how to get along with God, and a chapter of Proverbs each day because that taught him how to get along with other people.
The next idea is for any parents of young children who are here this morning or who read or listen through our web site. I would encourage you to include in the reading you do to your children selected Psalms, and I would suggest you find a version of Scripture that helps to make God’s Word clear to your child. For example here is Psalm 1 in a newer translation that is called The Voice.
God’s blessings follow you and await you at every turn:
when you don’t follow the advice of those who delight in wicked schemes,
When you avoid sin’s highway,
when judgment and sarcasm beckon you, but you refuse.
For you, the Eternal’s Word is your happiness.
It is your focus—from dusk to dawn.
You are like a tree,
planted by flowing, cool streams of water that never run dry.
Your fruit ripens in its time;
your leaves never fade or curl in the summer sun.
No matter what you do, you prosper.
For those who focus on sin, the story is different.
They are like the fallen husk of wheat, tossed by an open wind, left deserted and alone.
In the end, the wicked will fall in judgment;
the guilty will be separated from the innocent.
Their road suddenly will end in death,
yet the journey of the righteous has been charted by the Eternal.
My last suggestion for digging the Psalms deeper into your mind and heart is to write or speak these poems into your own prayers. Let me stick with Psalm 1 as an example.
“O God, I want to be like a tree that is firmly planted in your Word, so I ask for your help. Help me take your advice; help me walk in the path of your will for me; help me avoid the easy cynicism of the disappointed. Keep your Word in my heart and mind both day and night. Amen.”