Monthly Archives: August 2011

Pray a Psalm

Following someone else’s leading in prayer is a tricky enterprise. Some people who lead public prayer seem to be naturally praying poets. Their choice of words, the apparent closeness of their relationship with God, and the overall expression of their praise, thanksgiving, confession, and intercession can be especially inspiring and comforting. You get the idea that this public prayer is not their first conversation with God, and that their spoken prayer genuinely gives voice to what is in your heart to say to the Lord.

Unfortunately, other times you may have difficulty truly joining in with the speaker’s prayer. Something about it just “leaves you cold.” Maybe you get distracted by the language – either too grandiose or agonizingly inept – or their way of addressing God (or the people listening to them pray) or the theology underlying the prayer put you in something other than a prayerful state of mind. The prayer of your heart gets stifled your disaffection for the words of the person “praying.”

In fact, sometimes our own words can be a problem when we set aside time to pray. We may have trouble getting into our prayer, obsessing over finding just the right words to say. If our prayer comes out fluently, we may become sidetracked in self-congratulations. Or prayerful words might elude us entirely.

God’s people have had a common remedy for overcoming barriers to prayer. Praying the Psalms has been a keystone of public and private worship and prayer for more than 30 centuries. Such a remarkable track record should commend it to even the most non-liturgical believer today.

By making the words of a psalm our own words as we pray, we are being guided by the same Holy Spirit who inspired them to express eloquently our response to God. Hebrew prophets, priests, and common people prayed the Psalms. Jesus and Paul prayed them, as have followers of Jesus from Easter to the present. Many believers prayed through the entire book of Psalms every week, saying prayers several times each day. Modern practices of the “divine office” or Breviary among numerous Christian churches and individuals continue the spiritual discipline of training in prayer by praying the Psalms.

The practice is highly commended by spiritual giants. Martin Luther encouraged praying the Psalms, noting that “every man, on every occasion, can find in the Psalms that which fits his needs, which he feels to be appropriate as if they had been set there just for his sake.” If we attend carefully to how the psalmist addresses God, the reality of the petitions, and the depth of praise and thanksgiving voiced in the psalm, we can become more adept at formulating our own impromptu prayers. Dietrich Bonheoffer exults of praying the Psalms, “This is pure grace, that God tells us how we can speak with him and have fellowship with him.” Thomas Merton, a pivotal figure of reclaiming spirituality in the 20th century, says of the Psalms, “The Church loves the Psalms because in them she sings of her experience of God, of her union with the Incarnate Word, of her contemplation of God in the Mystery of Christ.” We share richly in the community of faith when we pray the Psalms.

Vast volumes have been written about how to pray the Psalms. But doing it does not require special instruction nor need it be an exhaustive quest. A few simple principles can help. First, read the psalm carefully, slowly, meditatively. Reading the psalm in several different translations can be useful. Next, seek a fresh understanding of the meaning of the psalm. Printed and online Bible commentaries are plentiful and easily accessible. Remember, this is excellent Hebrew poetry. It contains a depth of meaning about the nature of God and humanity’s worst failings and best expressions of love and faith in God. Let the meaning wash over you. Third, speak the words of the psalm to God. Read it aloud. Yes, say them! Say the words with genuine feeling. Fourth, note how the psalm leads you to honest communication with God. What words and phrases truly speak what is on your heart? Finally, you could memorize the psalm so that it is always available to you to guide your prayer conversations with God.

Try making this psalm your guiding prayer for today:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. {2} Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications! {3} If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? {4} But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered. {5} I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; {6} my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. {7} O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. {8} It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities. (Psalms 130 NRSV)

Let the words of the psalm lead you into thanksgiving for God’s grace in your life. Who does it remind you of for whom you can pray as they face trials and need a sure sense of God’s loving presence? Heed the psalm’s call to watch expectantly for God throughout your day.

David and the other psalmists are hard to beat as prayer partners to help lead you closer to God in prayer.

– J. Edward Culpepper

Bonus material! Try this sampling of the Psalms to pray when you feel the need to talk to God about:

Thanksgiving & Praise Psalm 92; Psalm 100

Godly Wisdom (The Value of Living God’s Way) Psalm 19; Psalm 1

Confession & Forgiveness Psalm 32; Psalm 130

Longing for God Psalm 27

Comfort & Encouragement Psalm 23; Psalm 121

Laments (Sad times) Psalm 142

Anger at Enemies Psalm 70

Complaints to God (Dark Night of the Soul) Psalm 77

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