Thursday, February 17, 2011

Preface: Praying the Psalms

Orthodox Christians have a lot of standard prayers that we can use when we pray, and many of us use them. If we're not careful, we can let addressing God this way become something like a personalized but still impersonal prayer wheel, spinning off words yet feeling justified because we've ‘said our prayers.’ Having a relationship with the living God can be bypassed this way, exchanged for something like a business agreement with a heavenly accounting firm.

If I make this sound like written prayers are to be avoided, that's not my intent. Formal prayers are there to launch us into the life of prayer. If we stop and linger with them, then we have no one but ourselves to blame. What I want to share with you today is some reflections on the Psalms, God's own ‘prayer book’ which He has given us to teach us how to pray, what to pray for, when to pray, and by which He speaks back to us when we pray them faithfully.

The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England established a very easy and consistent way to pray the Psalms. They arranged them in a 30 day cycle, dividing them up into morning and evening portions for each day. (I know some months have 31 days. See the note at the end of this post.) Rather than making things complicated by following the Lectionary or grouping psalms by content, they just started with Psalm 1 and divided them up as they come, ending with Psalm 150. No flipping back and forth of pages, that would only be a distraction. Just simple, Psalm 1, 2 and 3, and so on.

The first day of the month has eight psalms, but depending on length, some days have more or fewer. When you get to the longest psalm (and longest chapter of the Bible), we find that it takes two and a half days to pray it! But the first day has eight. Not too many, not too few.

To pray the Psalms, just make a point of going aside to a quiet and secluded place, your ‘prayer closet’ as the Lord says, and that can be anywhere. Just don't take anything with you into that place but your Bible. Open it reverently. Kiss the Book if you dare and then, open it to the first psalm of the day. Today is January 1st, so it's Psalm 1. Read this psalm, standing before the Father and in His presence. Though it may not seem like you're praying or asking the Lord for anything, in fact you are. Your very act of standing in His presence and reading His Word is the fact of prayer.
Go ahead, read it…

Happy the man
who never follows the advice of the wicked,
or loiters on the way that sinners take,
or sits about with scoffers,
but finds his pleasure in the Law of Yahweh,
and murmurs his law day and night!
He is like a tree that is planted
by water streams,
yielding its fruit in season,
its leaves never fading;
success attends all he does.
It is nothing like this with the wicked, nothing like this!
No, these are like chaff
blown away by the wind.
The wicked will not stand firm when Judgment comes,
nor sinners when the virtuous assemble.
For Yahweh takes care of the way the virtuous go,
but the way of the wicked is doomed.

Then, just say ‘Amen!’ to seal the praying of this psalm with your will and testimony. And continue to the next one, Psalm 2. Read it the same way, clearly, and listening to the words with your heart as well as your inner ear. This too is a prayer. Do you sense His presence with you in the room? While you're reading, praying, don't pay attention to anything outside yourself or any mental distractions. Pause if you want to pause, reread a line if you want to reread it. Pray the psalm through more than once, if you need to, before going on to the next one. Most of all, don't rush, don't put a worry about finishing by a certain time on yourself. You're standing in His presence, you're in His kairós (acceptable time) and have, in act, left the world.

Go ahead, continue with Psalm 2…

Why this uproar among the nations?
Why this impotent muttering of pagans—
kings on earth rising in revolt,
princes plotting against Yahweh and his Anointed,
‘Now let us break their fetters!
Now let us throw off their yoke!’
The One whose throne is in heaven
sits laughing, Yahweh derides them.
Then angrily he addresses them,
in a rage he strikes them with panic,
‘This is my king, installed by me
on Zion, my holy mountain.’
Let me proclaim Yahweh’s decree;
he has told me, ‘You are my son,
today I have become your father.
Ask and I will give you the nations for your heritage,
the ends of the earth for your domain.
With iron sceptre you will break them,
shatter them like potter’s ware.’
So now, you kings, learn wisdom,
earthly rulers be warned:
serve Yahweh, fear him,
tremble and kiss his feet,
or he will be angry and you will perish,
for his anger is very quick to blaze.
Happy all who take shelter in him.

Again, say ‘Amen!’ at the end of this psalm. You have only six more to go. By the time you get to Psalm 8, you'll not want to leave. Also, beginning with Psalm 3, you will find yourself standing in King David's place, sharing his prayer, noticing little by little how you can pray these words as coming from your very self! The first time this happens isn't the last. If you persevere in praying the Psalms, you will enter into the Biblical world, being taught how to address the living God, understanding more and more of His will for your life.

Soon enough, between reading each psalm, your personal prayers will begin lodging themselves, at first by words maybe, but then gradually by spiritual groanings (I can't find a better word, but I don't mean something negative by ‘groan’). It's impossible to explain, but as you faithfully pray the Psalms, not only does your personal prayer and dialog with the Lord become more real, more lasting, but soon, you will find that the Lord has been speaking to you more constantly and clearly than you had ever realized. This is what the Orthodox mean by practicing theology rather than studying it. This is where a personal relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ becomes more than just an expression.

Praying the Psalms has been my main personal prayer life since I accepted the Lord at the age of 24. I have not been faithful or consistent with it, but it is the place I always return to whenever I notice I've been drifting. And why is this? Because the Lord is there, He's the faithful and the true, the only lover of mankind, the merciful Father, and I can always depend on Him to save me, and enfolded in His psalms I can come and stand before Him, with Jesus.

There are two thirty-day cycles. The one I have used most of my life is found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. I have marked my Jerusalem Bible with the day numbers of that cycle. The other thirty-day cycle is found in the Hebrew Tehillim, the book of Psalms. As this blog is dedicated to praying the Psalms / Tehillim in both English and Hebrew, both systems are linked below, and you can follow which ever suits you best.

You can switch between the English in this blog, and the Hebrew in a parallel blog by clicking on Hebrew on the English page, and English on the Hebrew (for only a few psalms).

Thirty day months—a perfect match!

Thirty-one day months?—Two psalms taken from the Torah, the Song of victory (Exodus 15), and The Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32). Or instead, pray the psalms for the day of the month you were born. Or again, if you're praying for someone in particular, offer the psalms for their birthday on that ‘extra’ day.

What to do with February?—I was afraid you'd ask that! Well, take it as it comes—on the last day of February either read just the psalms for that day, or just finish the book of Psalms right to the end, whatever you have strength for.

One other encouraging word. Don't fret yourself over not being able to pray all the psalms. Do your best with the time you have. Many days you won't finish them all, and you shouldn't have to. ‘It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh has nothing to offer. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life’ (John 6:63).

1 comment:

  1. I just found this article. Really wonderful, this has long been my practice and I mark all my Bibles with the Psalter notations so I always have it with me. I use Proverbs 1 and 2 for the months with thirty one days, but your suggestions are great too. Blessings.