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Comments on praying the Psalms

Here is a compilation of comments I made on students' papers for "Leading Congregational Worship" at Bethel Seminary. I had students read and journal through 5 Psalms a day for 30 days and also read Eugene Peterson's Answering God. They were to write of their experience. 


On comforting and disturbing feelings of praying the Psalms:

Yes, there is a comfort food comfort in the regular paraphrasing of the Psalms (e.g. Psalm 23) but the imprecatory (or at least "angry" petitionary) Psalms remind us that some hermeneutics (interpretation) takes place as we pray them in our setting (as opposed to being shepherd/king/Jewish congregation).

On the difference between prayer and worship; and the difference between personal and corporate

Yes, very interesting to reflect on how prayer (personal and corporate) and worship (personal and corporate) are related. On the one hand, I think it is helpful to think about worship of idols as a way of defining worship. There is a devotion in formal religious practice to erecting and sacrificing to a statue. And there is also the poisoning corruption of one's lifestyle by orienting oneself around that false god so we see child sacrifice (2 Ki 17:31)--doing as what seems right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25). 

We then deduce that worship of the Triune God has to do with formal ritual allegiance to God both: personal in one's closet in prayer (Matt 6:6); and corporate in gathering with others (Heb 10:25). But also this worship entails actions of mercy and justice in keeping with the character of God (Isa 58:6). Prayer seems therefore to be a subcategory of worship. Worship seems to be the broader concept. Prayer is an action that is taken which fosters and indicates right worship (with one's life). 

I have no problem at all with your probing this. Is it better to say "prayer" or "worship" is what is occurring in the Psalms? I am happy to say it is personal or individual prayer or expressions of worship (there is much use of the personal pronoun "I") or also to say that it is both practically best for it to be corporate prayer or expression of worship (because people get tired trying to prayer or worship by themselves) and also because historically the Psalms were used in corporate prayer or worship. 

On Eugene Peterson's regulative liturgical PCUSA Presybterian worship services vs. his encouragement of wildly expressive personal journaling prayer

On further reflection, perhaps you are taking issue with Peterson prescribing a rather formal liturgical structure for corporate worship (such as what we see in Cherry's book: Gathering, Word, Response, Sending) and you are saying that this applies to corporate formal worship but not personal informal prayer. You might be on to something in that Peterson as a Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastor would have quite a narrow view of proper corporate formal worship that you would not accept, and I would be on your side on this argument. I think you probably are right that Peterson should apply the scattered, random, living, dynamic, "fragmentary . . . wet and wild" (107) reality he describes in the Psalms to corporate formal liturgical worship. Peterson tends to see the personal journaling or personal prayer that way but not formal worship. Good. Yes, I think you are right about that. Interesting. However, Peterson did originally start paraphrasing Psalms (which became The Message) in order to help his congregation to pray. But did he also incorporate this authentic "wet and wild" approach to Sunday morning worship? Perhaps not. Again, I think both the corporate liturgical "worship" gathering should be formational and expressive and I think one's personal prayer life should also be formational and expressive.    

I also hear you perhaps wondering if the Reformed tradition, which Peterson is part of, has made prayer stale by insisting that the Psalms should be our language for prayer. They have ruled out casual, passionate, free prayer and insisted that prayer be constrained by using the words of the Psalms. We did not talk about this in class, nor was it in the reading but there is indeed some of the Reformed tradition that insists on "regulative" worship that if it is not in the Bible, we don't say it. It can be expressive but only using biblical words and forms. In its strict practice, regulative worship does not allow improvised prayer but only written ones based on biblical prayers. I agree with your sensing and rejecting this. I don't think Peterson agrees with that or promotes it but you may smell it in his tradition. 

Again, I would only say in his defense that without formation by Scripture, prayer and worship can drift into shallowness and American norms and self-centeredness. And furthermore, I hear Peterson promoting rather raw prayer (and perhaps also worship) in the spirit of the Psalms. 

On emotions:

 Yes, how do we express the depths of our pain and anger together as we long for the day when light and salvation shall break through--even though it is now but rays?

I appreciate you pressing hesed beyond the intellectual toward its rushing wild fullness. 

On exercise: 

There is indeed a kind of physical wrestling with God (Gen 32:25). Are we perhaps in training through the ups and downs (reps) of the Psalms? Do we not stretch and strengthen our muscles? 

On anger to God: 

Yes, we can be disturbed and angry in our expression to God. Apparently, God is a God who is able to receive our most desperate confusions and cries. I think of Rom 8:23 and 26--that we can "groan." I also think of the kind of things that the disciples said to Jesus--rarely were they neat and tidy. Usually, they were concerned and troubled and confused by Jesus and they told him so. There are moments when Jesus seems impatient with them (Did you not know? Jesus says to his parents in Luke 2:49; Why are you so afraid? Matt 8:26). Is that God's character with us? Exasperation? This is worth pondering. Again, we see God saying something like "Oh just shut up" (Job 38-39). Does God get angry at our slowness to learn? God is not a pansy. God will not be mocked. God won't be treated as an afterthought. God is not a dimwitted Santa Claus who always brings gifts regardless of whether the person is evil. 

But God seems to respond well to challenge and wrestling matches with human beings (Gen 32:28). Sincere frustration, disappointment, confusion: this the Father will not disdain, giving him a stone or a snake (Matt 7:9-10). 

It seems to me that getting in touch with our baser, more honest emotions and feelings and expressing them to God may also give us more sympathy and empathy with those wounded people on the road who express their pain. Or maybe this is a way of stretching to touch our story to the Story (as you say)? I am thinking here of the stretching of Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam."

On the questions in the Psalms:

Do you think it is ok to ask questions to God? Indeed it is! Perhaps this is another reason as well to pray them in community--so we can sharpen one another and pursue our questions together. 

On the Reformed "answering speech" 

I also think it is fine for you to push back on Peterson's account of: "answering speech" (a Reformed emphasis on God's initiative). Any reading of the Psalms does not give an indication that the Psalms are rigidly waiting on God for Him to speak first. Perhaps it is when we unburden ourselves to Him that He answers! James 4:8 "Come near to God and he will come near to you."

On "the end of prayer is praise" 

Surely that phrase is a stretch from what Peterson says about expressive honest speech in the rest of Answering God. It may be that eventually our groans become prayer and praise by the Spirit (Rom 8:26) but we are still groaning and waiting for the redemption (Rom 8:23) that shall come! So we don't live in Psalm 150--we are more often in the other ones!  

On discipline and legalism vs. poetry and play

I don't want to encourage discipline in a legalist but maybe you need expressive poetry and music like the Psalms to jar and upset your logical mind. Or perhaps you would be better off putting the Psalms aside and cooing and playing with children and others and reveling in the beauty and joy there as an expression of authentic emotion and expression which is God's gift as a foretaste of the goodness which he has designed us for and will one day complete.

On themes in the Psalms:

Good synthesis of themes from the Psalms in your summative paper. Yes: fear, trust, and boldness: learning from God, clinging to God's goodness, and crying out for him. Wow, thanks, help (Anne Lamott). 

On fear in the Psalms:

People could theologically get distracted regarding fear. Should we fear God? Are we to cower before him? Is he an abuser? But you are right that this is situated in the Psalms with obvious freedom to express and to be ourselves and to ask for help and to snuggle down and enjoy him and rest in him. I especially think of fear of the Lord in the context of Proverbs--which is a practical book rather than an existential angst sort of book. Fear of the Lord has to do with not acting like an idiot powered by your glands and appetites; but rather healthy, wise living that leads to life. 

On the book of Revelation's relation to Psalms:

In both Revelation and the Psalms, the big picture is a great struggle between God and evil. Revelation expresses in a vivid way the structures which are oppressive and dehumanizing--"the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Eph 6:12), as well as people fueled by "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life" (1 John 2:16). Like the strong language of the Psalms, the book of Revelation paints strong pictures. This latter type of art--apocalyptic genre--depicts the bureaucratic bland world more vividly and actually more accurately. Some of the evil actors prayed against in the Psalms and depicted in Revelation are oppressive and evil but "our struggle is not against flesh and blood" (Eph 6:12)--these people are caught up in forces and ideas beyond themselves so that they think they are doing right often! I think most worship idols (like money and themselves) and thus are confused, lost, and hungry--and thus fall victim to being addicted, apathetic, abusive--that is sin. I wonder if you would like Eugene Peterson's Reversed Thunder on the book of Revelation.

On Psalms and science:

In Psalms and in science (like physics) there is a longing for harmony and truth. These find wholeness in Jesus Christ--they "hold together" (Col 1:17). 

On paraphrasing the Psalms:

Yes, I think you are right that reading Psalms in different translations or paraphrasing them can be helpful. Indeed, you are right that knowing some of the biblical languages helps us to see that translations are designed to make the text comprehensible (as well as accurate) so there is a pastoral place for paraphrase for ourselves and others. At least we are in touch with the Scriptures when we are doing this rather than untethered entirely!

On using the Psalms for expression and formation:

Yes, journaling and singing the Psalms for deep feeling; yet also letting them form us about who God is.

I suppose for leading worship, I would only say what we have emphasized in class that it will be good for them to be formed or shaped or educated by the Scriptures (including prayers and the Psalms) so we are not just emoting; but also it is indeed good to follow the lead of the Psalms which are raw and emotional in their petition, thanksgiving, and praise (1 Chron 16:4).