16 November 2012

PSL: Prayer as a Second Language

On Thursday I was honored to teach the final class of the year for the Ladies Bible Class at my church. During this fall semester, my dear friend Andrea has been leading the class in a study entitled "Praying to God in God's Own Words." She explored The Lord's Prayer and several other New Testament prayers. Early last summer she asked me if I would be willing to teach the concluding lesson on praying the Psalms.

As it has every Thursday, the class began with the recitation of the Lord's Prayer followed by the old Sunday School standard "Whisper a prayer... to keep your heart in tune."

For the lesson I presented, I am deeply indebted to a wonderful book examining Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians:
Eugene H. Peterson: Practice Resurrection. A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.

"Why are people so ready to appoint a representative to do their praying for them? Why is there so much more talk about prayer than actual praying? Why are so many more doubts expressed and questions raised about this form of language than any other?

…observe the way language is used when we are not on our knees…. Listen… the primary use of language is impersonal… to name things, describe actions, provide information, command specific behaviors, tell the truth, tell lies, curse, bless. Language is incredibly and endlessly versatile. But in our heavily technologized and consumerized world, most of the words said and heard in most ordinary days have little or no relational or personal depth to them. They deal with a world of things and activities, machines and ideas....

Language objectifies both the world before us and the people around us…. "

The poet William Wordsworth in his 1806 poem  laments:
"The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
For this, for everything, we are out of tune..."

Wordsworth's use of the phrase "out of tune" as did the little song with which we began the class suggests that the reason one should "whisper a prayer" is to "keep your heart in tune." 
One of the illustrations I often use when teaching the Psalms is a pair of tuning forks, each tuned to the same note but an octave apart. When one fork is struck and begins to vibrate and the second is brought near to the first, the second will also begin to vibrate. They are "in tune" and they resonate together. So it is when one reads a Psalm and finds in the words an echo, a perfect expression, of one's own joy or pain.

Indeed, in the world around us, in our everyday encounters, most of our language is used... “getting and spending.” Too often, we bring this use of language into our prayers.

Quoting Peterson again:
"But language at its core and its best reveals. Using words, I can speak myself into relationship with another."
{I inserted examples of how our speaking had created relationships with people in the class.}

Prayer works in the same way. When we learn the language of prayer, it can speak us into a relationship with God.

"...prayer is personal language or it is nothing. God is personal, emphatically personal… When we use impersonal language in this most personal of all relations, the language doesn’t work… when we listen in Scripture and in silence to what the personal God has to say to us in our unique person hood, anticipating information or answers and not hearing anything remotely like that, we don’t know what to make of it. We may walk away saying or thinking, “God doesn’t speak to me… He never listens to me.”

The practice of prayer, if it is going to amount to anything more than wish lists and complaints, requires a recovery of personal, relational, revelational language in both our listening and our speaking."

We are blessed to have Caleb McDaniel teaching the Open Door Class and I greatly appreciate the historical perspective he brings to our class and to my study. Currently we are looking at the creeds of Christendom, beginning with some creeds or creed-like sections of the New Testament and then looking at other very early creeds, The Apostles' Creed, The Nicene Creed in its several revisions, and several others in coming weeks. Last Sunday, he noted that looking at changes from creed to creed gives us glimpses of what was happening in the culture of that time but that looking at those things which are “continuous and consistent” throughout the centuries can help us see what is really the core of  Christian belief.

When the church and its members begin to learn prayer as a second language what is "continuous and consistent" is the use of the Psalms. For example, lectionaries and the Daily Office include daily Psalms. Almost all published editions of the New Testament (such as those distributed by the Gideons) include the Psalms. Almost all books of daily devotions will reference the Psalms. Some Christians (not I!) may dismiss the stories and prophecies of the Old Testament as fulfilled and irrelevant to the practice of Christianity but, through the millennia, the "classic text book for recovering the personal language of prayer is the Psalms. A thorough immersion in the Psalms is the primary way that Christians acquire fluency in the personal, intimate, honest, earthy, language of prayer and take our place in the great company of our praying ancestors."
Those praying ancestors are part of  that “great cloud of witnesses" about which Caleb preached form the pulpit last Sunday and when we pray the same words of scripture which they prayed we are with them and they are with us.

Quoting Peterson:
"For while prayer is always personal, it is never individual. At prayer we are part of a great congregation whether we see them or not. Praying the Psalms gets us used to being in a praying congregation… We are never less alone than when we pray, even when there is no one else in the room. We are praying for others who don’t know we are praying for them. Others are praying for us although we don’t know it…. When we pray we are not self-enclosed. Praying the Psalms keeps us in a school of prayer that maintains wakefulness and an open ear, alertness and an articulate tongue, both to the word of God and to the voices of praise and pain of God’s people."
We see that in the New Testament prayers that Andrea has led us through this Fall. Today I want to recall the lesson she taught a couple of weeks ago on the Apostle Paul’s great prayer from his letter to the Ephesians.

Ephesians 1:16 – 19; 3:14 – 21
I make mention of you in my prayers: 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, 18 the eyes of your understanding[a] being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power .

14 For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,[a] 15 from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, 16 that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, 17 that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height— 19 to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20 Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, 21 to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen

Note that Paul’s prayer begins with God's great work of salvation, the riches of his glory, which leads to exultant act of worship. Peterson reminds us that "…prayers of intercession flow out of the plenitude of God. The plenitude of God, not the penury of the human condition…"

Too often in our prayers we bring the language of our need, of human poverty, into our prayers, failing to see the "riches of his glory" which are abundantly more that our need. The Psalms encourage lament, the full recognition of human need and pain but they also encourage thanksgiving and trust, the "steadfast love of the Lord" which never ceases.

In chapter four of Ephesians Paul quotes the 68th Psalm. Peterson argues that the 68th Psalm offers "a structure that gives literary and theological shape to what he writes: first a thorough meditative immersion in the action and word of God (chapters 1-3), which then takes form in a worship-generated life of believing obedience (chapters 4-6)."

The first 23 verses of the Psalm present a documentary of God in saving action. At midpoint the Psalm shifts to a comprehensive act of worship in the sanctuary. Peterson:

"All that God is and does—riding the clouds, transforming the wilderness, commanding the prophetic proclamation of good news, taking charge once and for all by ascending the “high mount”—is brought together in a worshiping procession of singers and musicians into the sanctuary, bringing gifts, acclaiming blessings.

Sanctuary is a set-apart places consecrated for worship, paying reverent attention to who God reveals himself to be and how he reveals himself in our history…. Psalm 68 worship is a listening attentiveness to God in word and action, which develops into glad participation in that word and action.”

Sanctuary is what we create for ourselves, as individuals and as a community, when we pray.

Look more closely at Paul's quotation in Ephesians 4 of the 68th Psalm:
Ephesians 4: 7-8 reads:
"7 But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore He says:
“When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men.”

Psalm 68:18 reads:
"You have ascended on high, You have led captivity captive; You have received gifts among men,
Even from the rebellious, That the LORD God might dwell there."

Note that Paul changes the quote from the triumphant King who receives gifts to the Messiah who gives gifts. It is not because Saul, the rabbinic student of the great Gamaliel, does not know the scripture. Paul, the Apostle, changes it because Jesus does indeed change everything. Such a simple fact which I never noticed until I began to prepare this lessons: Jesus, the Messiah, the anointed of God gives us gifts from "the riches of God's glory" and that changes, or perhaps it is better to say fulfills, the scripture in a way that is surprising.

So here in the 68th Psalm, as in so many others, we find a model not only for the language of prayer but also for the day-to-day practice of Christian life.

The class then moved from my talking about prayer to the practice of prayer. When one learns a second  language, one must go to the language lab; one must begin to speak the language.

Deep breath and exhale to prepare for prayer.
The class then sang a few songs and read selections from the Psalm. We attempted to read it not as text to be studied but as prayer—personal, relational, communal prayer. We each read aloud but made no attempt to read in unison. We wanted to pray as individuals but to be aware of the "murmur" of the "cloud of witnesses" around us.
I suggested that we pray the 68th Psalm as intercession for the persecuted church.

Song #794 Unto Thee, O Lord

Song 55: I will bless Thee, O Lord

Psalm 68:1-10
68 Let God arise,
Let His enemies be scattered;
Let those also who hate Him flee before Him.
2 As smoke is driven away,
So drive them away;
As wax melts before the fire,
So let the wicked perish at the presence of God.
3 But let the righteous be glad;
Let them rejoice before God;
Yes, let them rejoice exceedingly.
4 Sing to God, sing praises to His name;
Extol Him who rides on the clouds,
By His name YAH,
And rejoice before Him.
5 A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows,
Is God in His holy habitation.
6 God sets the solitary in families;
He brings out those who are bound into prosperity;
But the rebellious dwell in a dry land.
7 O God, when You went out before Your people,
When You marched through the wilderness, Selah
8 The earth shook;
The heavens also dropped rain at the presence of God;
Sinai itself was moved at the presence of God, the God of Israel.
9 You, O God, sent a plentiful rain,
Whereby You confirmed Your inheritance,
When it was weary.
10 Your congregation dwelt in it;
You, O God, provided from Your goodness for the poor.

Psalm 68:17-2
17 The chariots of God are twenty thousand,
Even thousands of thousands;
The Lord is among them as in Sinai, in the Holy Place.
18 You have ascended on high,
You have led captivity captive;
You have received gifts among men,
Even from the rebellious,
That the LORD God might dwell there.
19 Blessed be the Lord,
Who daily loads us with benefits,
The God of our salvation! Selah
20 Our God is the God of salvation;
And to GOD the Lord belong escapes from death.

Song 193: Crown Him with many Crowns

Psalm 68:24-26
24 They have seen Your procession, O God,
The procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary.
25 The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after;
Among them were the maidens playing timbrels.
26 Bless God in the congregations,
The Lord, from the fountain of Israel.

Psalm 68:32-35
32 Sing to God, you kingdoms of the earth;
Oh, sing praises to the Lord, Selah
33 To Him who rides on the heaven of heavens, which were of old!
Indeed, He sends out His voice, a mighty voice.
34 Ascribe strength to God;
His excellence is over Israel,
And His strength is in the clouds.
35 O God, You are more awesome than Your holy places.
The God of Israel is He who gives strength and power to His people.
Blessed be God!

Song 108: The Lord is in His Holy Temple

We kept a time of silence and concluded with a song:
"I love you, Lord,
And I lift up my voice,
To worship you… Oh, my soul, rejoice!
Take joy, my king, in what you hear:
May it be a sweet, sweet sound
In your ear."

Serendipity: Although we were reading/praying individually, the phrasing of the psalm seemed to move us increasingly toward unity. We found that we were reading in unison; we could in fact not read in unison. I had not anticipated this lesson on one of the functions of prayer. We pray to create unity. Praying the Psalms is not only the great school of prayer but a source of our unity with God, with our best selves, with one another, and with Christians in all places and in all times.

The hymns were from Songs of Faith and Praise.
The scripture readings were from NKJV.