I continue to look at prayers of Scripture and the church which have pulled me through in dark times and which I find help others in my work as a pastor and now a chaplain. I focus on those from my own tradition, the United Church of Christ, because of how I have found that prayer done in community is life-giving and opens us up to our own inner experience of God.
I’ve shared already about how in my own experience of suffering and loss, joining others in such long important prayers of God’s people helped me find words when my own words failed. But more than that, if I look back on my own life, it is through prayer together with others that I first learned how to pray.
One of my convictions when I have a family is that I want us to pray together, even though family prayer and prayer with a partner often can be a really awkward, uncomfortable experience. Growing up though we were a religious home, we didn’t really pray together much other than prayer at meal-time, so when I first began to feel the stirrings to reach out to God I wasn’t really sure what to do. What I did was begin to kind of talk to God like I would anyone else, which I think worked.
But my connection to God in a deep way really began to open up in the high school Youth For Christ Christian club I joined. There we sang songs of worship together, we talked about Scripture and lives in a deeply personal way, and we prayed. It was the old school sitting in a circle, everybody praying what came to their heart. I learned how I could open to God, using my own words. I discovered I didn’t have to be afraid of coming to God about anything. I also learned that God was at heart love. For I heard in the prayers of others the experience of being deeply held, loved, and embraced just as they are – and loving in return. That, taken together with the contemporary praise songs we sang, showed me that I could embrace being loved completely by God and loving others.
This was the beginning of my journey to become a mystic, a person for whom prayer is about truly opening up, opening up to the deep well that lies below the surface of all of life, a spring of love, joy, and freedom which is God the Holy Spirit flowing through all things like a healing river. I came to seek in my life a deep personal connection with God that in my mind was a “personal relationship”. But that personal relationship, that connection, was shaped by the everyday mysticism of these others whose praying with me taught me how to pray.
So there is a value in praying together even though many of us at first find it awkward. As we pray together, we learn to open ourselves up to the Sacred, to be honest with ourselves
One really formative prayer of Scripture that people often ask me to turn to as a chaplain and previously as a pastor is Psalm 23.
The UCC Book of Worship includes two versions of this classic Psalm. The first attempts at inclusive language:
You are my Shepherd,
I shall not want;
You make me lie down
In green pastures.
You lead me
In paths of righteousness
For your name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil;
For you are with me;
Your rod and your staff
They comfort me.
You prepare a table
Before me in the presence
Of my enemies;
You anoint my head
With oil, my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy
Shall follow me all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in your house forever.”
The second version they provide is more traditional. I actually prefer the inclusive language version myself, but as I find patients with dementia and other cognitive impairments often are helped by the familiar, I tend to use this more traditional version when praying with patients:
“The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want;
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me
Beside still waters;
He restores my soul.
He leads me
In paths of righteousness
For his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through
The valley of the shadow of death, I fear no eveil;
For you are with me;
Your rod and your staff,
They comfort me.
You prepare a table
Before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever”.
To fully flesh out how this prayer, in its different forms, carries people through their lives and has carried me, will take more than one post.
What I focus on right now, before we get to the straightforward, is the limits of this prayer.
This is important because I pray this prayer so much. It is so well-loved. And it is easy when we love something to fail to see our difficulties with it.
And one difficulty I find off the bat with this prayer is its limitations. The language we have to speak of the leading, guiding, shepherding presence of God immediately breaks down even as we say this prayer.
We see this starkly in how my Book of Worship lines up two markedly different interpretations of this prayer. In one, it is to the Holy One we speak, and directly. To be Holy is to be set apart as a bearer of Sacred presence, and often conveys (though not always) distance. In the other, it is the Lord, a name that in English speaks of a benevolent land-owner, ruler, or governor who gains his authority through inheritance. Neither of these is actually what is used in the Hebrew in which this prayers is written, but instead an untranslatable word which many a Jewish person simply call “Ha Shem”.
We transliterate this name for God into English as “Yahweh” or “Jevohah”, but it is a form of the word “To be”. In Exodus 3 God explains its significance by telling Moses to tell Israel that “I am” has sent Moses, saying that God is the “I am who I am; I will be whom I will be”.
To me this is made understandable by reading how the prophets of Israel speak of this God. Always, ever this God they knew through the concrete experiences of being freed from captivity, planted in a land they could freely be themselves, is held up in contrast to gods Israel constructs from its own imagination. They carve out pictures of this god from stone, wood, and the prophets mock: how can you invent something with your mind and hands, then worship it as god? Instead, God is the Living One, wild and free, active in the atoms of the universes, pumping like a heartbeat at the center life.
Because of this I prefer to translate this word “the Living One”. Where is this God? This God is at the heart of life. This God is not so much an old man in the sky, or even a little baby in a manger. This God is the one found wherever life breaks forth, wherever justice emerges. And so, this God is only Holy One in so far that all of life, in its messiness, complexity, pain, and angst, is Holy.
This to me is the heart of the Christian message. Too often we transform this message into the uniqueness of one man of Palestine, Jesus son of Mary. And to be fair, he is Holy. The Christian story tells us that in this man God breaks forth in a visible, tangible way. But the reason why I think is not to point us to his uniqueness but rather because this man discovers how to fully embrace his own life, his own createdness, his own humanness. It is within the stuff of our lives, within the messy complexity of who we are, that the Sacred can be found. If a part of our lives and histories is holy, all of it is. If Jesus is holy, every one of us, in every part of lives, are aflame with the holy fire.
The purpose of prayer is not to pull us out of life, but to immerse us more fully into this Holiness that is found in our own lives, in the lives of others, and in the lives of the messy multi-colored world in which we are birthed.
To me knowing the ways in which our translations break down the name “Holy One”, “Lord”, “Living One”, “Yahweh”, is helpful for me as I pray this prayer.
For so often we look outside of ourselves for some distant Other to be our Shepherd. But if the Holy One is not some benevolent God-King in the sky but that perhaps just an image we have crafted like the wooden statues the prophets mocked, perhaps a better way to look at what we ask to lead us is to look at it as the Living One, Life itself. The Source and fount of all true wholeness, livingness, healing, recovery, and peace.
A book we read in my chaplain training is Parker Palmer’s book Letting Your Life Speak. In this book he suggests learning to listen to our own lives, to look for the paths within us that point to full flourishing of our lives and others. This is a very legitimate way to interpret Psalm 23. When we remove the need for a literal Person to be the Shepherd here, but instead let that Shepherd be the God who is Life itself, the One from whose fount we all emerge alive and renewed, it suggests that living this prayer means looking within our lives and world for what full flourishing looks like. It is looking for that of life in our own lives, our relationships, our communities, and letting that life-giving presence and impulse guide us.
After all, is it not the ancients of our own faith who said with church father St. Ireneaus that the glory of God is a human being fully alive?
The second tension in these translations is that the movement gets lost in my favorite version, the inclusive one. In the original you move from the impersonal – He, or She, or They – for God and only after much journey along the path this God of Life who is our Shepherd takes us on do we turn to the intimate “You”. I think that it is both important to find ways to move beyond the constrictive picture of God as daddy-king, which restricts God to only present in the male and in the dominant, while also acknowledging the truth this movement of language suggests.
The truth is that relationships take time. I am learning this as a newly single person. I find myself getting to know great women, hoping for a connection. And it happens some. Yet sometimes it is stumbling, fumbling in the dark. I have one woman I care a lot about who as of yet nothing romantic has happened with, who reached out to me in some beautiful ways. Yet I still feel afraid to open up to her, and when I do with her or with others, I often leave feeling kind of disappointed. Well, it’s cause I’m still on a certain level used to an understanding, a deep getting of who I am, that only came after a decade of relationship with my late wife. I find this problem not just with women I find interesting, but friends in general. And it’s unrealistic to expect that to happen like magic, for what I once had which I lost recently took much work to get to the depth it was.
So it is with God. We expect at times to say a simple prayer, open our Bible for the first time, and just get right away God and be gotten by God. But, you know, that’s not how it works, is it? Just as I can’t expect a new friend to get me like my friend Terrence whom I have known longer than any woman I’ve dated, nor a new person in my life to get me the way my late wife did after 13 years together, so I have to take time every day to open myself up to Spirit if I want to learn its ways.
And I find as I do this, just as taking time for my long-term friendships and love never feels like a sacrifice but is life giving, so taking the time to really cultivate life in Spirit is the same: not a sacrifice, but life-giving.
Your progressive redneck preacher,