Spiritual Practice: Praying the Psalms

sailboat-against-a-beautiful-sunset

 

I don’t know where you are in relation to Scripture, you might see it as your rule for living, you might see it as a book of wisdom, you might see it as your final authority, you might see it as an oppressively abused and abusing book.  

But, a recent seminar* reminded me that The Psalms give us words for our experience. The Psalms help us know how to talk to God. The Psalms were written as songs to be read or chanted corporately, and that is still a powerful way to enjoy them. But, they can also be an incredible source of strength and comfort for us individually.

Did you know that of the one hundred and fifty psalms, they can be broken down into three helpful categories?

About 72 psalms are Psalms of Orientation – These talk about the way life is supposed to be: God is good, and if you follow God, your life will be good. These Psalms keep you oriented in a positive direction. If you were sailing in a boat, these psalms would be the smooth sailing water, or if there were waves, you would still know God is with you and you could see the shore from your boat. Psalm One is a perfect example of a psalm of orientation; here are vs 1-3.

Blessed is the man
Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly,
    Nor stands in the path of sinners,
    Nor sits in the seat of the scornful;
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
    And in His law he meditates day and night.
He shall be like a tree
    Planted by the rivers of water,
    That brings forth its fruit in its season,
    Whose leaf also shall not wither;
And whatever he does shall prosper.

Help needed. Drowning man's hand in sea or ocean.

About 62 psalms are Psalms of Disorientation — That is ALMOST half of all the psalms in the Bible! These are psalms for when life and our experience of God leaves us disappointed, dis-eased, disillusioned. When our faith is hanging by a thread we pray these psalms. If you were in a boat, it would be capsized and you would be drowning. These include the Psalms of lament, which can give us words to talk to God when we are in distress. At our present time in history when things seem to be going so wrong in our world, these psalms can give us a kind of template for our lament. Some of these psalms end in hope, but not all. Consider these lines from Psalm 142:4

In the path where I walk
     they have hidden a trap for me.
Look to the right and see:
     there is none who takes notice of me;
no refuge remains to me;
     no one cares for my soul.

Unfortunately, in many parts of our current Christian culture, we have forgotten how to lament. This is especially true for white Christians; many non-white cultures still feature traditions of lament. In fact, the book of Lamentations and the Psalms of Lament have been removed from many modern prayer books. What we are left with is a Happy-Clappy Christianity, which can do us a great disservice when we deny our suffering and leave lament out of our prayers. After all, the Old Testament writers felt that almost half of our life will be about suffering and we need some words to navigate that!

The Jews still understand this. During each Sabbath service, they pray a Psalm of Lament for all those who are hurting. This “kaddish” is sung in a minor key. How beautiful is that? Words for our pain prayed corporately, are healing.

US_Coast_Guard_helicopter_rescue_demonstration

About 13 of the psalms are Psalms of Reorientation – Nope, our boat did not get righted so we can go our merry way. Instead, we were picked up by the coast guard and placed on a completely new shore. We learn a new language after our grief has left us different than we were before. Why are there so few of these psalms? There are two thoughts on this:

1) Sadly, when the psalms were written, most people did not live to see the answer to their pain. Sometimes we die in our disorientation, but that doesn’t mean it is not a holy place.

2) If they did make it to the new shore, they were too busy re-orienting themselves to the new country to write about it. Think about how often you make it through a rough patch and forget to go back and thank God for it. This is not a guilt trip, but just an acknowledgment that finding yourself in a new country can be overwhelming and it may take a while to unpack the experience.

Some people consider Psalm 23 a psalm of re-orientation because the writer is able to say:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

Our ultimate hope is to survive our disorientation and to come out on the other side with some hope and faith, but the other side it will look different; we cannot un-see what we have seen in our times of disorientation.

Have you found the Psalms helpful in talking to God? I’d love to hear how you have used them. Here is a site where you can use a template to write your own Psalm of Lament.

 

*Most of these ideas were presented at a spiritual direction training by the Rev. Dr. Catherine Gregg and are used here with her permission.

 

Photo Credits: sailboat, drowning, coastguard 

 

Spiritual Practice: Blessing and Releasing

woman in long sleeved dress surrounded by water plants
Photo by Alise AliNari on Pexels.com

We’ve all had relationships that changed from healing and helpful to damaging and unhelpful. Many of us have had these kinds of relationships within our own families. Some of us have worked at jobs that, because of toxic cultures, were sucking the life from our souls. Some of us have attended churches that became so controlling we were dying on the vine.

How do you extricate yourself from this kind of damaging relationship, job or church? There are good ways and bad ways to make the exit.

You try and you try, but when you really need to leave, when that is what is best for your soul, it’s important to leave with as much peace as you can. I love the wisdom that says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)

And that is where Blessing and Releasing come in. Is there a way you can draw a firm and healthy boundary to separate yourself from a toxic person or environment and yet live in peace?

May you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
That disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.

John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings


Here’s how to know if it’s time to Bless and Release:

  1. Take a piece of paper and draw a line vertically down the middle of the page. Label one side “Pros” and one side “Cons.” Then write honestly about the thing or person you are considering leaving. If the Con side is heavily weighted, it might be time to bless and release.
  2. Go to a mentor or spiritual adviser, someone who knows you well and yet can be objective. Ask for their honest opinion about leaving. If you have two or three folks who can help you with that kind of wisdom, get more than one opinion. This will help you know if it is time to bless and release.
  3. Pay attention to your body, mind, and spirit. When this person calls, do you cringe? When it’s time for work, do you get a heavy feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach? Is your inner voice screaming at you to “get out?” Our body wisdom is important to listen to when deciding to bless and release.
  4. Sit comfortably in a chair. Let yourself believe that you have already made the decision to leave. Feel it in your body as if it has happened. How does it feel? Do the same exercise as if you have decided to stay. Compare and contrast. This is a good way to get in touch with your true feelings to know if it is time to bless and release.

Then, if it is time, picture the person, job or church cupped in your hands. Slowly open your hands and offer them to God. Pray a blessing over them and let them go. Follow through with whatever it takes to make this happen in your life: a change in relationship, quitting a job, leaving a church…

You might need to hold this person or place before God and let it go more than once! It is so important to bless and release, rather than break off and curse. If we break off relationships and curse those left behind, we become bitter and angry. It hurts only ourselves and leaves a trail of brokenness behind us. To bless and release will put you in a much healthier place as you move on to what is next. And what is next is sure to be a softer, wider and more spacious resting place for your soul.

Have you tried blessing and releasing? I’d love to hear how it went for you.