Overall we’ve had a positive reaction to our feature “A Week In the Word”. However, one response I’ve gotten to our Week in the Word feature has been “it’s too long”. I hear you. I want this feature to help make Scripture more accessible to you. Because of that, this week I’m going to begin splitting the feature into three parts spread throughout the week: a week in the Psalms, a week in the Hebrew Scriptures, and a week in the New Testament. Before my own reflections, I will add a quote from some Christian voice other than my own about the readings we are discussing.
Today we will reflect on the Psalms. Early on in my Christian life, I used to struggle over how to make use of the Psalms in my life. Some of the questions I used to struggle with and the answers I found helpful are included in Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s little book, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible. I’d encourage you to think about Bonhoeffer’s comments and how they connect with these verses you as you read the Scriptures I reflect on along with me . Also, more than anything, take time to meditate on how they can inspire your prayer life. Take time to pray these words with Jesus, inviting a deeper communion with the Father & the mothering Holy Spirit who embraces us all.
“The Holy Scripture is the Word of God to us. But prayers are the words of men. How do prayers then get into the Bible? Let us make no mistake about it, the Bible is the Word of God even in the Psalms. Then are these prayers to God also God’s own word? That seems rather difficult to understand. We grasp it only when we remember that we can learn true prayer only from Jesus Christ, from the word of the Son of God, who lives with us men, to God the Father, who lives in eternity.”
“Jesus Christ has brought every need, every joy, every gratitude, every hope of men before God. In his mouth the word of man becomes the Word of God, and if we pray his prayer with him, the Word of God becomes once again the word of man. All prayers of the Bible are such prayers which we pray together with Jesus Christ, in which he accompanies us, and through which he brings us into the presence of God. Otherwise there are no true prayers, for only in and with Jesus Christ can we truly pray.”
“If we were dependent entirely on ourselves, we would probably pray only the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. But God wants it otherwise. The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.”
“If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible and especially the Psalms, therefore, we must not ask first what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ. We must ask how we can understand the Psalms as God’s Word, and then we shall be able to pray them. It does not depend, therefore, on whether the Psalms express adequately that which we feel at a given moment in our heart. If we are to pray aright, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our own heart. Not what we want to pray is important, but what God wants us to pray. If we were dependent entirely on ourselves, we would probably pray only the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. But God wants it otherwise. The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart. ”
Let’s open our Bibles and explore its words of promise and challenge together.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie!
Your progressive redneck preacher,
Psalm 104 invites me to see God’s creation in all its natural splendor, including its beauty and cycles of nature. I witness this in the stars at night, in rainfall in summer storms, in the birds that play around my bird feeder. Each reveal God’s presence to me. Yet the cycles of nature in which I’m called to see God also includes the cycle of the seasons, the cycle from birth to growth to midlife to death. It also includes the process of evolution and human sexuality in all its forms. It includes other people with their peculiarities, gifts, and challenges. It includes aspects of nature that aren’t so pretty to me: hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes. This psalm calls me to embrace all of nature as an encounter with God. Where is it easy to see God in nature for you? Where is it hard?
Psalm 113 invites me to praise God throughout all the moments of my day for the ways in which God shapes beauty out of the ash heap of my despair. How do you make space to mark the hours of your day with praise? What are some places in your life where you can see God having turned disaster into the raw material with which to craft great beauty?
Psalm 119 says happy are the blameless who perfectly follow God’s instructions. I wouldn’t know. I have yet to meet such a person. These verses make me grateful first for a forgiving God who does not hold over our heads our failings. Also, I’m grateful for learning in my own Bible study a few years ago that when Jesus said ‘be ye perfect’, the sort of never tripping up described in this Psalm was not what He meant. The word Jesus used translated “perfect” meant full grown, mature, whole. That’s something I can strive to become more everyday. So, Jesus’ perfection is very different than the Psalmist’s. That being said, the heart of this Psalm, if not the details themselves, rings true: having something greater than yourself you believe in that guides your life is a necessary ingredient for lasting joy that our world full of trouble cannot shake. As a believer, I find this in the God of love, justice, liberation, and compassion in its pages. Where do you find that purpose? What does maturity and wholeness look like to you?
When I read Psalm 119:53-56, I am struck by the psalmist saying God’s words in Scripture “have been like songs to” him “wherever” he has “lived as a stranger”. It reminds me again of the call to see ourselves in solidarity with the dispossessed, particularly immigrants. But also I can relate with the psalmist’s experience of Scripture as a song. A good song lifts you up out of your situation. It transforms your vision. It fills you with a bigger picture of life, of others’ struggles, and of your own. What allows Scripture to do this is not that it gives you “rules to live by”, nor doctrines. Nor is it that every word of its song is literally true. But rather Scripture opens you up to truths beyond words, realities deeper than could be expressed in any creed or dogma. I find Scripture lifts me up in this way, wherever I wander, and approaching Scripture as song rather than rulebook truly helps me find my steps in God’s dance.
Psalm 119:121-125 invites us to cry out to God as we face oppression. On the one hand, we are reminded that God cares about our oppression. Don’t just sit on your painful feelings when you are numbered among those pushed down and mistreated. Voice your heartache before God and others in prayer and know God hears. God so cares that when Israel cried in oppression he called Moses to lead them out of oppression. God hears you, me, and all who face oppression. This brings us to the flip side of this psalm: you can’t pray this psalm with a clean conscience if you are either acting as an oppressor or looking away doing nothing to stop oppression when you witness it. Often, your calling from God as a believer can be found when you ask where your gifts and experience can be brought to bear on helping people’s prayers to be delivered from being oppressed be answered. Where is that for you?
I used Psalm 139’s “Where can I hide from your Spirit, Oh Lord, where can I flee from your presence, oh God?” for breath prayer this morning. As I did so, memories came to the surface of singing this psalm as a child and being filled with terror. The pastor at the church I was at preached a God of thunder and fiery judgment, out to get boys like me if they were bad. This Psalm spoke to me of having no hiding place. Yet now my own lived experience of God is of God as One whose presence fills all that live and breathe, One I sense in the rising sun and the call of birds, One I know in the beauty of summer rain, in the beating pulse in my veins, One who is the ever-present giver of all life. My lived experience is of a God who is the voice of love echoing not just in my own heart, but in the hearts of the most broken by life, even in the most violent of criminals, calling out across the desert places of our lives both for us to receive the embrace of love and for us to lay aside our destructive ways and become that embrace of love for others. This God I’ve experienced is not the God I imagined from that fearful preaching I heard as a child, but one whose love and presence are deeper than the oceans, from whose presence I would only want to flee if I did not truly know it was life-giving and of boundless love in the way I have experienced. This experiences calls me not to hide from that time of terror, but face into my own experience of faith being misused to terrorize God’s children, so that through my own experience of healing I can break that cycle in my family and be available as a healing resource for others.