From the Heart

This year I’m using the New Living Translation as my daily reading Bible, and I’m reallyIMG_4692 enjoying its direct and vivid style. I follow the One-Year Bible lectionary, which takes me through the entire Old and New Testaments once and the book of Psalms twice in the course of the year. Here was my daily psalm portion for today, from Psalm 31.9-18:

Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am in distress.
Tears blur my eyes.
My body and soul are withering away.
I am dying from grief;
my years are shortened by sadness.
Sin has drained my strength;
I am wasting away from within.
I am scorned by all my enemies
and despised by my neighbors—
even my friends are afraid to come near me.
When they see me on the street,
they run the other way.
I am ignored as if I were dead,
as if I were a broken pot.
I have heard the many rumors about me,
and I am surrounded by terror.
My enemies conspire against me,
plotting to take my life.

But I am trusting you, O Lord,
saying, “You are my God!”
My future is in your hands.
Rescue me from those who hunt me down relentlessly.
Let your favor shine on your servant.
In your unfailing love, rescue me.
Don’t let me be disgraced, O Lord,
for I call out to you for help.
Let the wicked be disgraced;
let them lie silent in the grave.
Silence their lying lips—

those proud and arrogant lips that accuse the godly.

I’m reminded as I read these verses of two wise things I was taught about the psalms. One of my college professors used to say “The rest of the Bible speaks to us, but the psalms speak for us.” Indeed. And in speaking for us, they give us permission to pray about things we would probably be shy about mentioning if left to ourselves. I don’t usually complain about my neighbours or my enemies in my prayers, but the author of Psalm 31 felt no constraint about this! If he was upset or worried or afraid about something, that made it a valid and acceptable subject for his prayers. And when it comes to the end of the psalm—

‘Let the wicked be disgraced;
let them lie silent in the grave.
Silence their lying lips—

those proud and arrogant lips that accuse the godly.’

—well, I can think of a good few contemporary world leaders, and politicians closer to home, who I’m tempted to pray that prayer for!

And that leads me to the second wise thing I was taught about the psalms. I believe it was Eugene Peterson who said ‘The psalms are not the prayers of nice people!’ Look back at that part I quoted one more time:

‘Let the wicked be disgraced;
let them lie silent in the grave.
Silence their lying lips—

those proud and arrogant lips that accuse the godly.’

‘Let them lie silent in the grave.’ Is the psalmist praying for the death of his enemies? I think he might well be. And before I get on my high horse and quote Jesus to him on loving his enemies, I might like to consider that I’ve lived a pretty peaceful life, in two countries with free and democratic systems of government. I haven’t been forced to flee my home as a refugee, I haven’t seen family members murdered or raped, I’ve never watched as my city is reduced to rubble by bombing or cannon fire. Maybe if I had, I might have nursed a secret desire for wicked and tyrannical leaders to lie silent in their graves, as quickly as possible. And if I’m feeling that way, God already knows I’m feeling it. So I might as well be honest with God about what’s actually on my heart, rather than pretending to be such a nice, mild-mannered person. I believe it was Thomas Merton who once said that two of the most important questions we can ask ourselves about prayer are (1) “Is it the real me who prays?” and (2) “Is it the real God I’m praying to?”

I come from a tradition that prays the psalms regularly, both at public worship and in private prayer. Psalm 31 is familiar to me; I’ve prayed it many times over the course of my life. How do I enter into a psalm like this, when, as I said, I’ve lived a fairly peaceful and secure life?

What I tend to do is to ask myself “Who am I praying this psalm for today?” I may not be a victim of oppression and violence, but for many people around the world, that’s their daily reality. In the psalms I don’t just pray about my own concerns; I pray for the whole world. So when I pray these words, I can think of the Uyghurs in China, or the Rohingya in Myanmar, or the many countries in the world where gay and lesbian people are in danger of their lives. I can think of the nameless and faceless ones I don’t even know about, but who just need someone to pray for them.

I love the psalms and I enjoy praying them, but there’s one more thing I need to say about them. The psalms are prayers we can use, but they’re also model prayers. They don’t just give us words to pray; they also teach us how to pray. And the lesson is: “Be honest, say what’s really on your heart.”

One of the perils of a liturgical tradition is that we don’t get a lot of practice in that. We Anglican clergy are expected to pray Morning and Evening Prayer every day – a formal liturgy including psalms, canticles, Bible readings, and written prayers. There are a lot of strengths to this tradition, but one weakness is that we can get out of the habit of framing our own prayers, in our own words, from the heart.

And that would be sad. God cares about each of us as individuals; Jesus assures us that even the hairs on our heads are numbered. (My dad used to say “Not just counted, but numbered!”) The psalms give us permission to pour out our hearts to God, honestly and openly:

‘O my people, trust in him at all times.
Pour out your heart to him,
for God is our refuge’ (Psalm 62.8 NLT)

In using the psalms in prayer, it would be tragic if we let ourselves get out of the habit of doing that.

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