Spiritual Practice: Praying the Psalms
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;
2 But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
3 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.
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 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 an 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.
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 acknowledgement that finding yourself in a new country can be overwhelming and it may take awhile 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.