Teach Us to Pray: Interlude

A few minutes ago, the presiding elder read to you
a piece by a poet I quoted in my sermon last Sunday.
So, since Wendell Berry
seems to be a theme as we talk about what prayer is,
let me begin my sermon with another one of his poems:
What stood will stand, though all be fallen,
the good return that time has stolen.
Though creatures groan in misery,
their flesh prefigures liberty
to end travail and bring to birth
their new perfection in new earth.
At word of that enlivening
let the trees of the woods all sing
and every field rejoice, let praise
rise up out of the ground like grass.
What stood, whole in every piecemeal thing
that stood, will stand though all
fall— field and woods and all in them
rejoin the primal sabbath’s hymn.*
I hope you noticed something about this poem.
And that is that it’s very biblical.
Some of it could have come straight from the 8th chapter
of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
But other parts sound just like a Psalm of David.
Wendell Berry’s poems reflect his faith,
but he is not counted by many as a “Christian” poet.
Yet I cannot help but think about how knowledge of the Bible—
especially its prayers—enrichens his poetry.

And so if knowledge of the Bible makes for better poems,
imagine what it can do for the prayer life of a disciple of Christ!

There are lots of reasons to read the psalms, to think about them,
and even to pray them.
And the first on I can think of
is that they teach us the language of prayer.

Like I mentioned last Sunday,
God understands our prayers no matter what language we use…
and no matter how fluent we are in that language.
So it’s not for God’s sake
that we might better learn the language of prayer.
It’s for our own.
Just as it feels better when we can express ourselves—
say what we really mean—
when we talk to somebody we care about,
so it is with prayer.
And becoming accustomed to the prayer book of the Bible
can help us have a more fulfilling prayer life.

After all, the Book of Psalms was the prayer book Jesus used.
We know that he didn’t think those were the only prayers to be prayed.
But it was the prayer book of his people.
And if we want any evidence of how much the psalms meant to Christ,
all we need to look at is the language he turned to
in his time of greatest need:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
he prayed from the cross—a prayer from the 22nd Psalm:
A prayer, by the way,
that most of us might think a person of faith should not pray—
and yet, there it is—right in the middle of the Bible,
and right in the middle of the scene of our redemption.

So if it was the Book of Psalms
that taught Jesus the language of prayer as he grew up,
and if it was the psalms that he prayed as he was dying,
then it’s not a bad idea to know that when we pray them
or think about them or study them,
we are actually saying them with Christ…
and with his earliest followers.
Remember, after all, that they didn’t have Christian hymnals.

So I meditate on the psalms every day.
I’ve even made it into a system.
My year starts in early March with Psalm 1,
and I’ve divided 150 psalms into 365 portions.
I read a different one each day
and think about what it means and what it says to me.

Some mornings, the psalm says something I’m already thinking about,
or reflects my feelings exactly.
This morning, for example, wasn’t too far off the mark:
The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us.
May God continue to bless us; let all the ends of the earth revere him.
That was Psalm 67:6-7,
and it reminds me of the blessings of the earth
on a day when our church service is being held in the beauty of nature.

Other mornings I’m feeling happy, and I read a psalm of praise.
Or I’m feeling guilty, and I read a psalm of confession.
It’s great when it works out this way.

But it’s frequently the case
that the psalm of the day doesn’t reflect my feelings.
And so when things aren’t going well
and I read a psalm of joy,
I’m reminded that this, too, shall pass.
Or when I’m feeling good about myself
and I read the psalm of a sinner,
my devotions help keep me humble.

There are some psalms that I wouldn’t pray at all.
Some of them are the prayers of the truly persecuted.
And while there are times when I feel like I’m up against my enemies,
I still can’t relate to a psalmist whose life is in danger
and who is hiding out or in flight.
Here’s an example from Psalm 13:2
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?
I’ve come to realize that I need to read, think about,
and pray those prayers, not because they’re my prayers,
but because there really are people in the world today
who can pray them in all honesty and integrity.
I think it’s God’s will that I pray not just for them,
but also with them in their hour of need.

And what about those other prayers—the ones that ask for vengeance?
I used to think those didn’t even belong in the Bible.
But I’ve come to put them in a different perspective:
First, these are examples of the psalmist not holding back.
There are no feelings we cannot admit to God.
And pretending in prayer
that we don’t have negative or even vengeful feelings
isn’t really doing us any good.

It was helpful for me to realize also
that there’s never a single example in the psalms
of the psalmist taking matters into their own hands.
The matter is left in God’s lap, and the psalmist is able to move on.

But more importantly still,
it’s sometimes necessary—and always humbling—
to realize that I’m not always the good guy;
and an open-minded attitude toward the prayers of the Bible
helps me understand when and how I am part of the problem.

So if we want to have a more complete prayer life—
if we want to be more fluent in the language of prayer—
if we want to learn the importance of remembering past victories,
and trusting God in times of confusion—
if we want to learn humility,
or the language of praise and thanksgiving—
then we can join Christ
in the school of prayer he attended from his childhood on—
and make the Book of Psalms our own.
—©2019 Sam L. Greening, Jr.