January 16th, 2014
In an earlier iteration of the sermon series we began recently, a different metaphor organized the theme. It was to have borrowed from the last sermon in our vision series on Faithful Presence: the metaphor of a forge to elucidate the mysterious nature of praying. But the musical motif of the Advent series on the Canticles inspired a shift to the other metaphor we landed on: jazz improvisational. The Psalms are themselves improvisational music, inspired by words, events, and themes that prompt personal reflections in a poetic mode.
(Sidenote: my elders can testify that when I shared with them this shift in metaphors, one elder mentioned a parallel use of the same by Paul Tripp in his book of meditations on Psalm 51, Whiter than Snow. In a day of heightened scrutiny about plagiarism, I’ll gladly give credit to the wise and prominently mustached practical theologian if it was he who put the idea in my brain previously, but I honestly don’t remember.)
Metaphors and scholarly mendacity aside, what is this series really trying to accomplish? I’ve already heard both praise and lament concerning the attempt to “pray the Psalms back to God.” While the idea may possess a certain intrigue, the practice of taking “in hand” the teaching of a given Psalm and then letting it provoke personalized words to God may resurrect awkward memories of conversation exercises in your first year of foreign language study. The dizzying experience of trying to find not only the right word, but in the right case (or tense, or mood) and in the right order–all in hopes of pleasing your professor–can tempt you to discard the effort entirely. Surely if prayer is so vital to our union with God our practice of it shouldn’t be so unsettling.
Well, prayer has always provoked perplexity, and perhaps always will; why else would Jesus’ teaching on prayer figure so prominently in all the gospels? But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a kind of simplicity to praying–and to what we’ve meant by praying the Psalms back to God.
We’ve referenced his post before, but Kevin DeYoung provides a straightforward way of this kind of praying–like an outline of a few dance steps which, if practiced, in time can yield a more fluid and confident motion. Praying the Psalms, or any text for that matter, is no more than a matter of: rejoicing, repenting, and requesting.
To offer prayers of rejoicing is to ask ourselves why, if this Psalm’s teaching is true, there’s reason for joy–why God is to be praised and thanked. If God is really my Shepherd (Ps 23) then that has joyful implications for facing my circumstances, however challenging they may be. I pray words of thanksgiving for the steadfastness of who God is.
But what if you don’t presently feel joyful, even with a joy-giving promise staring you in the face? Well, consider human relationships as an analogy. There are moments when, in the wake of a disagreement or in the realization of how you’ve taken the other for granted, you see a bigger picture and recognize how the conflagration should’ve been handled more like a kerfuffle. In that humbled moment, a few words of gratitude bubble to the surface of your brain that you know must be said, despite the acrid air still lingering between you. In prayer, if you can pause long enough to take a longer view of the moment, of your life, and of the nature of God, it is possible to utter words that bespeak gratitude to Him, even if the echo of thankless emotion is still reverberating in your soul. (Psalm 42, which we’ll consider before the series ends, demonstrates that discipline of choosing words of joy in a stifling atmosphere of joylessness.)
That tussle to find words of joy dovetails with what DeYoung means by prayers of repentance. A Psalm invites us to consider our heart’s alignment with what it is teaching. And where we sense disjointedness, words lamenting that realization rise to our lips. The lament may take the form of befuddlement: “I know this Psalm teaches an elation in being in Your Presence, but I can’t get my mind around that. I don’t know what it means to be in the Presence, much less to feel elation.” Or the prayer may concede our willfulness: “I have refused to be comforted by what you promise. I have renounced hope concluding this moment is too big for You, or thinking myself more competent than I am.” Or our repentance may be a remorseful cry of helplessness: “I have many reasons to be thankful, many more reasons to trust Your wisdom. But I am still awash in discouragement and prone to deep cynicism.” Praying repentant prayers invites the Psalm inspect us and then respond to what it “finds.”
Now with every practice comes the danger of distortion. We’ll never be able to repent fully, or get to the very bottom of all that explains our mistrust of God. I’ve often quoted Augustine’s famous prayer: “our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee.” But he also prayed in his Confessions, that he might “find satiety in never being sated.” That is, he recognized the limits of his own capacity to repent and be thusly enamored by the perfections of God. He therefore found a kind of satisfaction in knowing he’d never be fully satisfied in his repentance and apprehension of God this side of Glory. That’s not ennobling a spiritual mediocrity–only embracing the limits of our nature and the unfinished character of this Kingdom He’s established. So while repentance is always in order, we must beware of letting it become an all-consuming endeavor. (An article that surely nuances what it means to be in the Presence of God, and which encouraged me to include this corrective paragraph can be found here. Many words or themes may be unfamiliar, so be patient and seek only to glean an idea or three.)
And one way to forestall the drift into an obsession with repentance–what Roman Catholics labeled three centuries ago as a condition called “Scrupulosity“–is not to let your praying conclude without turning to prayers of request. (You might enjoy a humorous, and not too disrespectful discussion of Scrupulosity here from an interview by Ira Glass with a Roman Catholic priest.) Our prayers of repentance evidence to ourselves our need of change. Our prayers of request acknowledge God’s role in our pilgrimage toward reformation. These prayers all say essentially one thing: “help!” They do not lay all the burden of our sanctification upon God; surely repentance entails some different choices on our part. But they do remind us that all abiding change is a function of new trust in God. It’s these prayers that may in fact lead you to come full circle back to rejoicing. For a request of God implies at least three encouraging thoughts: 1) as Psalm 51 reminds, God never despises the contrite heart that seeks the renewal of God, 2) that God invites us to appeal to Him for renewal means He is able to effect it, and 3) while our prayers of request seek a restored vitality to our relating with God, it’s the Blood of Jesus that affords us the “right” even to approach the throne of grace (Heb 4:16) for help, and therefore it’s that same Blood, not our renewal, that secures our abiding place at His table.
So where might this whole new kind of praying (which is really an old kind of praying) begin? We’ve pointed you in the direction of the Psalms since they are themselves prayer–and prayers beget prayers. Psalm 19 was our text last Sunday. C.S. Lewis thought this was the most brilliant of the whole Psalter, and yet found it almost maddeningly curious that the author seems to genuinely delight in the laws of God (vv. 7-11):
“This was to me at first very mysterious. ‘Thou shall not steal, thou shall not commit adultery’–I can understand that a man can, and must, respect these “statutes,” and try to obey them, and assent to them in his heart. But it is very hard to find how they could be, so to speak, delicious, how they exhilarate. (Reflections on the Psalms)
Lewis then proceeds to uncover how the laws of conduct can be in fact “delicious” to the Psalmist, and not because there’s satisfaction in knowing God is satisfied by our obedience. As my challenge to you at the end of the sermon, and my question to you during Q&A, I asked you to direct your prayers in answer to the question, “how exactly have the commandments of God demonstrated to you the character and benefits this Psalmist acclaims?” That’s the sort of praying that demands reflection and should evoke some measure of thanksgiving. It’s also the kind of question that lends itself to the rejoice-repent-request paradigm sketched above.
Psalm 23, our text this Sunday, surely accommodates the same practice. You may have meditated upon it, recited it, memorized it, embroidered it on a pillow–even pantomimed it (mmm, maybe not). But have you prayed it?
The Psalms don’t hold a monopoly on that kind of inspiration for prayer; Psalm 19 makes that plain. Granted, it’s a stretch to think genealogies would be much grist for prayer, aside from some of those more noteworthy. But the stories, prophecies, gospels, and epistles all offer an opportunity for to experience their sweetness which Psalm 19 extols. That’s why at the turn of every new year you see posts like this, and this to provide you motivation and structure for reading the bible…and then when the new habit of reading starts to falter and you’re tempted to give up, there’s a post like this to renew your motivation at any time.
Wisdom calls for anticipation of what to expect to the extent that you can. So it’s wisdom to know that reading Scripture will often provoke the experience of “wait–what?” Obscure ancient practices, curious ways of speaking, events that make your hair stand on end–these all find their way into the canon. Abandon expectation of initial clarity in many spots, all ye who embark on the tour through the Text. Along the way then, slip the axiom in your rucksack that you’re not the first person to have been perplexed or provoked. So, dog ear the page, take note of curiosity, consult a good commentary, ask an elder–and then press on.
Sometimes you have to travel far to capture the glory that yields itself only to the patient. (HT: James Harris)
Angela Jamene writes for the Huffington Post and not too long ago did something, to her and most of her peers, entirely unthinkable: she became a Christian. (Not unlike the story we mentioned about Malcolm Gladwell Sunday.) I’ll let her tell her own story, but she demonstrates how some conversions come from “nothing more” than picking up a Bible. She also puts the concept of inviting someone to church in terms just about anyone can understand–and hopefully respect even if they can’t respect the content the invitation invites them to trust.
We’re just a few weeks out from our seminar on evangelism (Saturday, February 1, 8:30-noon). Several have registered. You can, too, by clicking here. The weekend will take its outline from the book we’ve been mentioning since December, Basic Christianity. Completing the book isn’t prerequisite for attending so don’t let that hinder you. But as I’ve been reading Stott’s summary of the content of the Gospel, I’ve realized there may be two other reasons why you might want to attend.
While the seminar is about evangelism, in a sense it may serve to re-evangelize yourself. Stott’s distillation of the essentials of our faith reaffirm the elegant simplicity of faith in Jesus that doesn’t insult the intelligence. All the sermons you hear or the devotions you read may unintentionally fill your head with so many details and implications of following Jesus that something gets lost. I think the seminar will help recapture the kind of simplicity that encourages as much as it might equip.
Secondly, some of you may feel a kind of trepidation about attending because you think evangelism is at bottom an exercise in sophisticated debate–the kind that requires a thorough-going knowledge of all logical fallacies. But not only do you not need to know the difference between an ad hominem (“you’re a doofus”) and a appeal to authority (“well, Tim Keller thinks so”), you really only need to know how to earn the respect of someone enough to encourage them to seek God themselves. Stott begins his book with the admonition that God is to be sought; and that in the seeking we find that it’s us who’ve been sought by God first! So if you can befriend someone, if you can speak amiably with someone, then you can affirm the worthiness of a search for the truth about Jesus. If that’s all you learn to do by coming to the seminar, you will have, I think, learned enough.
And since the Super Bowl happens Sunday (newsflash), any queso you make Saturday will only congeal into a brick by game-time. So come. Let’s learn to stammer for Jesus together.
It’s designated as a pastor’s conference, but anyone who’d like to hear some seasoned wisdom about how the church can be true to her mission–even “faithfully present”–should feel warmly welcome to attend Redeemer Seminary’s Winter Conference, January 23rd, from 9-4p at Fellowship Bible Church Dallas. Speakers will include Dr Sinclair Ferguson, Rev. Todd Hunter, Dr. Tim Keller, and Pastor Bruce Wesley. Tickets are $45. You can register by clicking here. The elders and I will be in attendance; others from our community plan to be there, too. If you have the time and would like to be part of our larger discussion about implementing our vision, join us.
And as you and I learn to pray the Psalms back to God, might we also pray
- for our newly constituted session which will take time out later this month for a concerted time of prayer and planning
- for Gary Doan’s neck and back surgery next week
- that the seminar on February 1 would suffuse us with new clarity and confidence in being a messenger of the Hope that is in us
- for all the ways the Lord might help us to be faithfully present to Him, one another, and wherever we find ourselves
See you Sunday at 9:30,