The Psalms as Prayer

How to begin praying 

There is one thing still remaining which cannot be neglected without great injury to your devotions; to begin all your prayers with a psalm.  There is nothing that so clears a way for your prayers, nothing that so disperses dullness of heart, nothing that so purifies the soul from poor and little passions, nothing that so opens heaven or carries your heart so near it as these songs of praise.  They create a sense of delight in God; they awaken holy desires; they teach how to ask; and they prevail with God to give.  They turn your heart into an altar; they turn your prayers into incense and carry them as sweet-smelling savor to the throne of grace.

—William Law   

Prayer is never the first word, it is always the second word.  God has the first word.  Prayer is answering speech; it is not primarily “address” but “response”.  Essential to the practice of prayer is to fully realize this secondary quality.  It is especially important in the pastoral practice of prayer since pastors are so frequently placed in positions in which it appears that our prayers have an initiating energy in them, the holy words that legitimize and bless the secular prose of committee work or community discussion or getting well or growing up…           

By putting prayer in the apparent first place we contribute to its actual diminishment.  By uttering a prayer to “get things started” we bless a thin callow secularism—everyone is now free to go his or her own way without thinking about God anymore.  “That, at least, is out of the way; now we can get to the important things that require our attention.  We have pleased God with our piety and are free to get on with the things that concern us.”… What do we do?  We do the obvious: we restore prayer to its context in God’s word…God’s word is the creative means by which everything comes into existence…Everything, absolutely everything was spoken into being…(Ps.  33:9). This is no less true of God’s parallel work, redemption.  In John we find, “in the beginning was the Word…and the Word became flesh.”  The gospel spells out in detail Jesus speaking salvation into being:  rebuking the chaos of demons, separating men and women from damnation by calling them by name into lives of damnation by calling them by name into lives of discipleship, defeating the temptor with citations of Scripture, commanding healings, using words of blessing to feed and help.  The word is as foundational to the work of salvation as it is in the work of creation…everywhere we look, everywhere we probe, everywhere we listen we come upon word—and it is God’s word, not ours…           

Prayer is the development of speech into maturity, language in process of being adequate to answer the one who has spoken most comprehensively to us, namely, God…The Psalms provide the manor documentation for what it means to answer “out of the depths” the Go who addresses his people.  Athanasius, (4th Century bishop), pointed out their unique place in the Bible:  most of Scripture speaks to us; the Psalms speak for us.  The five book arrangement of the Psalms is, then, strategic:  for every word that God speaks to us there must be an answering word from us.  No word of God can go unanswered.  The word of God is not complete simply by being uttered; it must be answered.  For the five books of God’s creating/saving word for us (the Torah) there are five books of our believing/obeying word to God.  Five is matched by five, like the fingers of two clasped hands.John Calvin called the 150 Psalms an “anatomy of all the parts of the soul.”  Everything that a person can possibly feel, experience, and say is brought into expression before God in the Psalms.  If we insist on being self-taught in prayer, our prayers, however eloquent, will be meager.  Inevitably they will be shaped on the one hand by whatever the congregational ‘market’ demands, and restricted by our own little faith on the other…It is no easy task to move beyond these and other limitations in prayer, but the Psalms teach us how to.  Uninstructed and untrained, our prayers are something learned by tourists out of a foreign language phrase book:  we give thanks at meals, repent of the grosser sins, bless the Rotary picnic and ask for occasional guidance.  In Praying the Psalms, we find the fragments of our soul and body, our own and all those with whom we have to do, spoken into adoration and love and faith.-Eugene Peterson


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