As part of my ongoing training I have to complete a portfolio of evidence which demonstrates that I have met a set of ministerial competencies – I guess this is a task which lots of people have encountered in their work, particularly in the early days of a new career. It is probably a little different for ministers as so many of the ‘competencies’ are intangible and, therefore, difficult to provide evidence for. So far it has mainly been letters of thanks, a service plan, a sermon. The usual sort of thing. However, we have been told that we need to include more ‘theological reflection’ in our portfolios. After receiving this advice I began to realise two things. First, I did no formal theological reflection in my training course (unlike many of my peers). I don’t know whether to feel privileged or disappointed by this. Privileged, I think. The second thing is that almost all ‘theological reflections’ I have read have been very reflective, but not at all theological (I am willing to be corrected on this if people have examples to share with me). Anyway, this got me thinking about whether I already do theological reflection, but in a less formal way than Anglican Theological Colleges teach. I was also thinking this at the same time as writing a sermon on Praying with the Bible. It made me wonder whether formal ‘theological reflection’ is straining towards (though not quite arriving at) the life of prayer which we see in the Psalms. If anyone reads this, I’d be interested in your thoughts.
The Bible Roots our praying
Throughout his life, Jesus carried with him, admittedly not in book form, the words God had spoken to his people. He also carried with him a desire to respond to those words. It seems to me that for a Christian, this is the first and most basic definition of prayer: answering the God who speaks to us. So prayer and the Bible must be intimately related. Prayer isn’t our quest for an unknown God; prayer is our answer to a God who has made himself known, through his people, Israel, trough the Bible, and most significantly in Jesus Christ. This understanding of prayer strains against a lot of what we hear about prayer today – for many people, prayer is the way we journey into the secret mysteries of the universe, the way we conduct our search for the meaning of life. If you go and look on the spirituality shelves of Waterstones, the message you get is that when it comes to matters of the soul, the initiative rests firmly with us. But the Bible paints a different picture. God’s word precedes our word. We don’t seek God; God seeks us. He is the the Father who looks for and runs to the prodigal son. He is the shepherd who searches for one lost sheep which probably doesn’t know that it is lost. All of life, including the spiritual life, starts with God, with his seeking us, with his speaking to us.
Praying with the Bible means first and foremost that we have to root our praying in God’s word to us. In prayer we answer the God who addresses us, and so prayer always starts with listening carefully to God. To be a Biblical prayer, we have to allow our praying to be deeply rooted in what God has said to us in Scripture and in Jesus Christ. Our prayers, in other words, shouldn’t be cut flowers, but rooted plants. Cut flowers are beautiful to look at. They have brilliant and rich colour and texture, for a little while, but they have no life in them. They aren’t nourished in the way flowers ought to be nourished, by drawing goodness from the soil. And the same is true of our prayers, without being rooted in God’s word to us, they might be beautiful for a little while, but eventually our praying will wither for lack of nutrition.
The Bible Forms our Praying
We are often surprised by the God who has come looking for us. He doesn’t look much like the supreme being you read about in the pages of the spirituality best sellers. How on earth are we supposed to respond to the God of the Bible? The Bible helps us here also, because in it is a collection prayers which practice this rootedness in God’s word to us, the Psalms. The psalms listen for God’s word. The Psalms start by extolling the virtues of the person who delights in God’s law, and meditates on it day and night, comparing such a person to a ‘tree planted by streams of water, which yields fruit in season, and whose leaf does not wither’ (Ps. 1.3). The psalms are the prayers of people who rooted themselves in God’s word, who meditated on God’s covenant, and from that foundation, they answer back to God. By praying the Psalms, by allowing them to sink into our hearts, we too can learn to pray.
However, the Psalms don’t teach a method, or a formula of prayer. Some of the time, we might wish prayer was like that – follow these instructions and you will be a real prayer. But praying isn’t like that. It isn’t like learning to ride a bike. The Psalms aren’t much interested in methods of prayer. They are more interested in prayer being the expression of a deep relationship of love and trust. The Psalms are real. They answer God from the realities of life as it is, not as we think it should be. They were prayed by real people with real joys and real problems; real faith and real sins, and they reflect real life in all its complexity. In them you find all joys of life going perfectly according to plan, and all despair of life in the doldrums.
In the Psalms we find people praying to God in an amasingly frank way. Israel can cry from the depths of despair, “ My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest” (Psalm 22.1–2), and Israel can sing for joy “Lord, our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens” (Psalm 8.1). Israel can invoke God to flex his muscles, “Rise up, O God, and defend your cause; remember how fools mock you all day long. Do not ignore the clamor of your adversaries, the uproar of your enemies, which rises continually” (Psalm 74.22–23).
The Psalms aren’t abstract, they speak from the messiness of life, its joy and its pain. Its hallelujahs and its hatreds. True prayer happens when you hit your thumb with a hammer as much as it does when you gaze on a sunset. True prayer sets all of life’s experiences in the context of God and what he has said to us. And because of this, real prayer is risky. It means making yourself vulnerable before God, confessing weakness and sin, pouring our troubles and concerns out to him, allowing the feelings we would rather burry and forget about to be expressed to God. But it also means making God vulnerable before us, because it means holding God to his promises to us. It means asking him to be the kind of God he has proclaimed himself to be. The Psalms allow God to break out of the religious box we keep him in, domesticated, for Sundays and other special occasions, and allows an honest relationship to develop. In praying with the psalms, we are invited and assisted into this relationship. To paraphrase one author, if you are looking for a spiritual soporific, don’t look to the psalms! (Eugene Peterson, Answering God, p. 96)
Finally two practical thoughts about praying with the Psalms:
– The ‘daily office’ is a good place to start, because you get a regular diet of psalms, might not be such a good place to finish. Allowing the Psalms to form our prayer means we have to slow down, something which is not easy to do at Evensong! Sometimes the routine never lets the psalms sink in and do their work. How can we move ourselves from simply prattling the psalms to praying with and through them? When I was training I had the great privilege of studying for a few months in Rome. The first week I was in Italy we went on retreat. I remember sitting in a dining hall and seeing inscribed above the door an interesting motto: Mangiare Largo. Masticare Bene. Eat slowly. Chew well. We will need to find ways in which we can eat the Psalms slowly and chew them well, and my guess is that for most of us, it is probably not going to be in context of a church service.
– Don’t feel afraid of the negative stuff in the Psalms. Remember that they are real, and real life is full of negatives as well as positives. The Psalms pray about enemies, and sometimes, there are enemies we have to fight too. The Psalm writers often pray their disappointment and hatred, because these were things they genuinely were feeling. They weren’t squeamish. Mature praying places our actual lives in Gods presence, and calls upon his promise to transform and save.