Monday, February 20, 2012

A Pattern of Prayer

Switching gears from preaching in Paul's letters to the church at Corinth to preaching the Psalms is a kind of intercanonical culture shock.  These two disparate genres pretty well represent the varied literary landscape of Scripture.  Paul's writings are letters which means they are highly contextual, written for a specific group of people at a specific place at a specific time.  These letters often take the form of carefully reasoned rhetoric as Paul's tries to persuade his audience to a specific course of action.  The Psalms, on the other hand, are anything but rhetoric and anything but contextual.  While scholars have assigned a few of the Psalms to specific times or events within Israel's story, most resist such labeling.  The very purpose of most of the Psalms is to transcend their context and have a universal quality to them; they are meant to be prayed and sung by anyone, anywhere, at anytime.  These are ready-made words for God...a pattern for our own words...words for when we have no words.

This is especially true of Psalm 25.  In Hebrew, this Psalm is an acrostic; each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet (with the exception of two letters and one letter repeated).  This Psalm is a pattern of prayer.  To say it is a pattern, however, is not to say it teaches the right way to pray or that it is a pattern that must be followed in robotic fashion.  After all, if this were so, there wouldn't be much point in having 150 different Psalms.  The existence of the collection itself witnesses to the plurality and freedom of prayer.  Perhaps the Psalm is not meant to be "taught" or "followed" at all.  Perhaps it is simply to say here is a pattern that contains movements familiar to those who have made a habit of prayer, to say this is how we have repeatedly found ourselves responding to the God who has saved us.

That pattern of response goes like this:

The Psalmist begins (v. 1-3) by expressing trust in God to deliver, asking God that he not be put to shame by his enemies.  Part of the Psalmist's expression of trust is to say that none who wait on the Lord will be put to shame.  This leads to the next movement of the prayer (v.4-5) in which the Psalmist recognizes his own need to wait upon the Lord if he is not to be put to shame.  So the Psalmist asks God to teach him God's ways.  This is the Psalmist's waiting; not only waiting to be taught by God but also waiting and trusting that God's reaching will be proved true.  This prayer to be taught by God reminds the  Psalmist of all the ways he has failed to be taught by God.  The next section of his prayer (v.6-7) asks God to remember his mercy and not the sins of the Psalmist.  The Psalmist is confident that God will do this, not because the Psalmist deserves it but because God is good and upright (v.8-10).  In fact, God's name, that is, God's reputation is honored when God provides for those who respect God as the Psalmist does (v.12-15).  Finally, the Psalmist ends his prayer by returning to his original request that God would deliver him (v. 16-21).  Then, just in case we missed that this prayer is not limited to one individual, the final verse "re-voices" the prayer as one for "Israel" - the man in whom all Israelites find their identity.

I trust you God.

Teach me to trust you God.

Forgive me for when I haven't trusted you God.

I know you'll forgive me God not because I deserve it but because you are just that good.  You are love.

May you be glorified in my life.

I present my request to you again because I trust you.

I can't tell you how many times I've prayed this prayer - and not because I was trying to imitate this Psalm or any other.  Anyone else find themselves praying basically this prayer over and over?  Sometimes it feels like I hardly know anything else to pray.  These are not the overly pious words of someone who has all the answers about God and prayer.  These are just the words of anyone who has ever tried to live with God for any sustained period of time.

There is a substantial market out there for books on prayer and how to pray.  Anyone who knows me knows I love books.  In fact, love probably isn't strong enough of a word.  Its more of an obsession.  I even have a couple of books on prayer.  But I've found that the only books I've ever encountered on prayer that were really worth anything weren't the ones that tried to explain what prayer is, how prayer works, how to go about praying, or how to make my prayer life more "effective" (whatever that means).  They were the ones that simply offered different kids of prayer, the ones that included prayers to be prayed.  They were the ones that simply got me praying.  It could be that's the kind of book Psalms is to be for us - just the kind that gets us praying - because prayer is a hands-on activity.  It is the real work of the Church.  And over time, if we'll keep wrestling and being honest with ourselves and God, we'll find that our prayers sound an awful lot like the Psalms, not because we wanted them to but just because this is what life with God is like.

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