The Psalms as Poetry & Prayer

Today we’re beginning a season in the book of Psalms. Which reminds me of a story I once heard of a traveling preacher who visited a small, rural church and began his sermon by saying, “Since I’m new, I asked your minister for a list of all of you, broken down by age and by sex. But looking out today, I can see that most of you have already been broken down by age and by sex.” Of course, I wouldn’t dream of saying something like that to you. Brutal honesty, something we’ll no doubt here more in the Psalms together.

  • Harass these hecklers, God, punch these bullies in the nose. Grab a weapon, anything at hand; stand up for me!…Reassure me; let me hear you say, “I’ll save you.” (Psalm 35, The Message)
  • Shout with joy to the LORD, all the earth! Worship the LORD with gladness. Come before him, singing with joy. Acknowledge that the LORD is God! He made us, and we are his. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture. (Psalm 100)
  • My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help? Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. Every night you hear my voice, but I find no relief. (Psalm 22)
  • “The LORD is my shepherd; I have all that I need…He guides me along right paths…I will not be afraid…My cup overflows with blessing…” (Psalm 23)

Gratitude, sorrow, elation, despair, trust, doubt, anger, hope. We find it all in the Psalms, a book in the Bible we turn to to help us pray. In prayer we bring all of ourselves to all of God. We’ll spend the next while in the Psalms together. Why? Well for one, they help us pray, and prayer can be something we tend to avoid. Some of us feel about prayer like we feel about flossing: we believe in it, we know it’s for our own good, but when we occasionally remember to, doing it feels awkward and painfully time consuming. So we need the reminder to pray. But we also need to be remined of how to pray, and the Psalms help us with that too. Before discipline, even before devotion, prayer is first dependence. God’s people have been praying the Psalms for thousands of years, laying themselves out in the open. The Psalms aren’t magical, but they are marinated in God’s history with humanity and with his Spirit. Jesus prayed the Psalms, so did Paul and Phoebe and John. Good enough for us, I think. 

We’ll also sit with the Psalms a while because of the time we’re living through. Pandemic, polarization, various upheavals in the news every day more so than ever (it seems). Even if we know trouble is nothing new, some of us have been facing trouble in higher doses recently, which takes some getting used to. So our pretenses are dropping a little; the cliches are wearing thing; the veneer of niceness in society feels as though it’s melting away and the contents of our hearts are becoming more visible to one another. What are we noticing about one another’s hearts? More importantly, what are we noticing about our own hearts? 

So we’re making some room to pray, letting prayer open us to the contents of Jesus’ heart, of his character, in a season where divisions seem to be multiplying quicker than a virus. Of course, we could probably focus on seemingly more important or tantalizing topics together these days, couldn’t we? The mouth waters at the thought of all the questions we might try and untangle. But maybe prayer to Jesus, through the Spirit, with language from ancient scripture, is what we need most. I could be wrong, but it’s worth a try. These are holy spaces and moments we make for one another and for God. And prayer is the best space saver. If we could only look at Jesus together, pray together, praying the same words together, maybe we’d get a little closer, grow in a little more understanding, gain a little more capacity in the Holy Spirit to keep going. Lord, teach us to pray.

Many in our church enjoy the arts. Designers, musicians, writers, potters, painters, dancers. Personally, I like a bit of poetry. And like other art forms, poetry has a great deal in common with prayer. We observe and reflect in both; sum up some internal or external phenomena in both; pause and breathe in both. We struggle to articulate in each, often finding the apt language escapes us despite our best efforts. It’s nearly impossible to divorce poetry and prayer, art and prayer. So knitted together in our traditions they have often become indistinguishable from one another. A person experienced in each might argue that all prayer is a kind of poetry, even that all poetry, in a sense, is a kind of prayer. 

Prayer is what we make together under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The writer of Psalm 19 goes so far as to describe all activity in space as a pouring out of revelatory language in which we see God’s reputation on full display in creation itself:

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. 
Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. 
There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. 
Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalm 19)

Since those who wrote the Psalms believed humans weren’t exempt from this work, but were made to “speak” – along with the stars, forests, waterfalls, humming birds and tigers –  the poetic or creative voice ultimately manifests as worship language, merging together with creation’s wider symphony. “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD!” sounds Psalm 150 in the energetic closing of the book. Do you have breath? Do I? Well, through my prayer I am part of the symphony, together with “everything that has breath”, active in offering something up. I can’t help but make something which goes out and up to the one who made me. “My first cry was a joyful noise” writes world-renowned theologian, Bono.

So as we begin a new season, a couple thoughts about what can be learned through the Psalms as works of art and prayers. Among a great many others, these prayer poems, give us two gifts: they keep us honest, and they keep us present.

Honesty and the Psalms

First, a word on being honest. When we offer something up or out, something of our own making, something of ourselves, we know right away (as do others) if it’s honest. The only thing that makes art “bad art” is dishonesty, and the same goes for prayer. There’s no room for posturing, for straining to be more or less than who we are in art and prayer. Our listeners see right through all that. 

Which is one reason, for instance, why the Psalms make as much room for despair and sorrow as they do for hope and joy. The Psalms’ Audience, being the creator himself, is the origin of truth and wants the truth for us too. 

So a false poem or prayer is not only an offence to the listener but a foolish endeavour for the author, as dishonestly misses the point of each exercise entirely. No matter how meager or how opulent, a poem or prayer will be well received if it is honest. There might be more incisive poems, better crafted bits of art, more comprehensive prayers, but honesty is a key ingredient. Any offering, whatever else, must in the very least be genuine. And the good news is that we can all start there. If you’re willing to be honest, you’re already good at prayer. And if you long for a more honest life, the Psalms will meet you there and entice you further into truth.

So scripture, and the Psalms in particular, keeps us honest. Magazine publishers used to be the only people who knew how to airbrush away our wrinkles and blemishes, but we do that ourselves now with the swipe of a finger. The Psalms do the opposite. Arrive at the reading of a Psalm with any pretence or projection of perfection and the words pull us back to reality. Sometimes gently, sometimes with a jerk, but they bring us back to earth. Jesus said that “the truth will set you free” (John 8). What truth? The truth about him, about God, about ourselves. When we step into truth, we give God a chance of getting at us. It’s why one of our values at Living Waters is authenticity. It looks nice on a website, doesn’t it? The kind of buzz word you’d hope your church had on paper. But I think it’s often the hardest of our values to inhabit. If we want to follow Jesus, we have to embrace the truth, and that begins with honesty with Jesus and one another. As prayers, the Psalms help us with that. They remind us  that our experience of life is of course unique, but not that unique, that we’re not alone in shared human experience as the soul is laid bare. And the Psalms remind us that God can handle everything we can throw at him. 

I remember a few years ago being stuck in a bit of muddy and depressing spot. As we often do, I tried to soldier on, giving God what I thought God wanted: a positive attitude, perseverance. And then one day I broke down. I began to shout at God, began to let him really have it, tell him that I felt stuck and depressed and disappointed. I got honest. And then I heard something from him, I think, which for me has only happened a handful of times. As I sobbed and raged, I’m sure I heard something like, “Oh good, now we’re finallytalking.” I’d been living dishonestly for a while. I thought God wanted something other than all of me, and I was wrong. A good deal of the New Testament tries to get across to us that we really don’t have to clean up for God. “Jesus died for us while we were still sinners” says Paul (Romans 5). Translation: we are loved before we are right; we are loved, in fact, when we are wrong. But sometimes it’s as if we think we can present God, or one another, with a version of ourselves cast in a better light. “What filter should I choose today?”, we wonder, often subconsciously. But really we aren’t fooling anyone, except for ourselves now and then. There’s a common saying that goes, God loves us enough to take us as we are, but too much to leave us as we are. The Psalms keep us honest so God can receive our true selves, not the selves we try and polish up for him.

You know, we’re also taking on the Psalms to ensure that after a lot of distance, a lot of potential drift, we don’t let the truth about ourselves and God out of sight. Being up close and personal is a challenge these days. I think the Psalms can help us stay up close and personal with God, and with one another in such hard times. It’s a tempting to look out the window and coldly judge what’s we see, point our fingers, cement our opinions, bemoan the contents of our communities. But as mentioned earlier, what about the content of our hearts? We’re probably not responsible, not able to control much of what goes on around us. But we’re somewhat responsible for our hearts, aren’t we? It would be a dangerous thing to obsess about the devil prowling around out there, forgetting he’s just as interested in prowling around our hearts. And when we empty the contents of our hearts to Jesus, he doesn’t recoil, he doesn’t judge harshly without compassion or mercy. He’s probably pleased that we’ve finally unearthed to him what he knew was there all along. I wonder if we pray the Psalms together honestly, we might also open the door to intimacy. So the Psalms keep us honest. They also keep us present.

The Psalms and Presence

A word on being present. Years ago I was at a party in the city and felt like a bit of an outsider. I ended up in the corner with my safety blanket, or what’s more commonly known as a cell phone. After a while a rather inebriated young woman took notice of me, grabbed the phone out of my hand, looked me square in the eyes and said, “Be present.” Well, she wasn’t wrong, even though it was a fleeting correction as her next words were, “Oh! Is this the new iPhone?!” She ended up as distracted I was in the end. Many of us find being present to be a challenge today as there seem to be more distractions than ever. The rapidity of our thoughts and movements make it difficult to feel as though we’re ever really here, pushed about in a society enslaved by stimulation. Praying the Psalms helps us to find here again, even if just for a moment, before we’re on to a million others. They help us to take hold of what’s right in front of us, not clutching onto yesterday or groping for tomorrow. Often, when we stop trying to be someone else, when we’re honest, we stop trying to be somewhere else, we become present. And it seems many of us are finding being present in a pandemic a challenge too, which is understandable. Why can’t we go back to how things were? Or why can’t we just hibernate until we’re through all this? But people have felt like this before, as we hear in places like Psalm 6. “How long will this last, God? I’m worn out from sobbing. I can’t see straight anymore.” Painful fights within families, serious tests at work, another holiday season on the horizon threatened? There are times we’d rather be anywhere other than here.

“Don’t worry about tomorrow, today has enough going on” (Matthew 6) we hear Jesus say. And elsewhere it’s clear that our preoccupation with the future betrays a heart which wants too much control. The Psalms help us with that too, very often praising God through his character and creation in the middle of deep difficulty. Being desperate for relief, we have to say, is something most if not all of us are feeling. We can’t live in tomorrow, we must meet Jesus today, turn to him with that ache. Psalm 42, “My heart is breaking as I remember how it used to be…Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again – my Saviour and my God.” (Psalm 42)

So during these honest offerings we settle into where we are rather than where we are not. We’re present to the world around us, to others, and even to God’s Spirit. And make no mistake, if scripture says anything the Spirit’s whereabouts it’s that he’s very much present in the here and now, not only there and then. The question half the time is, where are we? 

The Psalms weren’t written in a vacuum, but were made to be shared and sung together. It would have been hard for the writers of the Psalms to ever imagine that these prayers would be something we’d experience in isolation. The very nature of the Bible is communal. And maybe in that we hear another of our church values coming through: community. In whatever ways we’re turning up to God honestly this fall, can we turn up for one another too? That might not be turning up to a crowd, but it can mean to someone. 

We’ll hear about Life Groups and other ways to connect in the coming weeks. Let’s take the chances afforded us to be present to and with one another, and discover the life of Jesus among us. We’ve got to be wise and safe. We’ve got to give one another room to sort out how to gather. It’s going to take some patience and compassion with one another. But let’s put one another in touch with God. Who can we pray with this fall, who can we open-up to? If we can’t think of anyone, we’ve got a team of pastors that would be more than happy to sit, listen, share and pray. So with roommates or as a family, what about taking on a Psalm together each week? Try reading one together before bed or in the morning, or around the dinner table. Prayer isn’t about performance, but presence, and the Psalms to settle in to where we are together.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.