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Keep it real

I know what he said. But I don’t remember why he said it.

If you met with John Bruce regularly, you spent time in the Bible. As the Director of Campus Crusade for Christ during my years at UC Berkeley, he met with a lot of students, including me for a season. John frequently had a Bible in his hand. But he also had it in his heart*, which permeated our times together.

John counseled me to become familiar with the Bible, and specifically to concentrate on two areas. Number one priority was the Gospels –the four accounts of the life of Jesus. His reasoning was simple – you need to know the one whom you pledged to follow. Next month we’ll reflect on the effect of the Bible upon our thought processes.

John also directed me to the Psalms. Why? I don’t know. He probably said something about prayer. But forty-eight years later, I’m still on the path to which he pointed me. Almost every morning that I meet with God begins with the Psalms, the Bible’s prayer book.

Prayer is nothing more than being present with God – Adam and Eve’s primary activity in the garden, and yours for eternity if you’ve chosen to walk with him in this life. Talking to God is important, of course. Yet sometimes in his presence we. just. need. to. be. quiet.

The Psalms immerse us in the language of prayer, and therefore make a wonderful first step in “sending our roots out by the stream”, the topic I promised for the next few weeks.

If you’re going to learn a new language, you need to surround yourself with people who are fluent. The Psalms were written by many people who, like you, desired to be present with God.**

Beware. The language you find in the Psalms will challenge you to “unlearn” some of what you were told by your well-intentioned Sunday School teachers and devotional books. But your prayer life will be deeply enriched, moving you beyond desperate celestial-911-dispatch calls and the recital of greeting-card phrases.

How do I adequately introduce you to the Psalms without overloading you with information? I’m going to organize my reflections and pointers by borrowing three instructions thought up by someone else: Keep it Real, Keep it Simple, Keep it Up.

Keep it Real

God already knows your emotions, much better than you do. So come before him and be honest with your feelings and earnest with your longings, even the ones you can’t admit to yourself. Envy. Grief. Disappointment. Contentment. Anger. Fear. Gratitude. Confusion. Yep, all of them and more.

I’m drawn to an image from a hymn: Hearts unfold like flowers before thee, opening to the sun above. The Psalms teach us how to unfold ourselves before the Light of the World, basking in his presence. They give us examples of what some people felt and said as they were Son-bathing.

As you read, think of them as a springboard, vaulting yourself from the experience of the writer into your own context, and swim along.

Sixty percent of the Psalms are about gratitude and praise. Get started with their words, and then let your own flow. Be patient; learning to become truly thankful and expressive in your devotion to God takes time.

Forty percent of the Psalms are laments, authentic and heart-felt expressions of frustration with life, with enemies, and yes, with God. Think about this: the Psalms give us permission to not only to tell God “thanks”, but to also say “thanks for nothing!” Psalm 88 concludes with this line: you have taken away my companions and my loved ones. Darkness is my closest friend. Ethan railed against God in Psalm 89: How long will this go on? Will you hide yourself forever? ***

Can’t imagine talking like that? We’ve long been taught that complaining against God is off-limits, which is true. But we’ve been given a false interpretation of what that means. The Psalms show us that speaking directly to God is encouraged; he wants us to pour out our souls to him. That’s exactly what Job did, and he was commended.

Complaining is when we share our disappointments and frustrations about God with other people, thus demeaning him in the eyes of others instead of bringing glory to his name.

Keep it Simple

Over the years, I have distilled my prayer life down to eight simple phrases, each of which are found regularly in the Psalms. I hope you will find them as helpful as they have been for me.

We love the Lord with our hearts by learning to say:

Lord Have Mercy and Yes, Lord

We love the Lord with our souls by learning to say:

Thank you and I love you

We love the Lord with our minds by learning to say:

Wow! and Teach Me

We love the Lord with our strength by learning to say:

Help and Here I am

Don’t try to impress God with your lofty and pious words, or butter him up so you can get what you want. He knows (better than you do) that you come to him with mixed motives. Lay out your prayers simply and honestly. Humbly ask him to remake you as he sees fit.

Keep it Up

Dipping your toes in the Psalms only now and then will lessen their impact on your prayer life. Plus, you’ll likely fall into a pattern of analyzing what you read more than absorbing it into your soul. Therefore, I strongly encourage you to develop a new habit. Find a time – four to five days a week – to read a Psalm.

I started reading at night before bed time, but I don’t recommend it. Instead of opening my life up to God, I was more inclined to close my eyes, and you know what happens then. Fifteen minutes in the morning is best.

Over the years, I have adopted the following patterns for reading. One of them might work for you. But feel free to come up with your own method.

  • Over the first few years, I jumped right in with Psalm 1 and worked my way to Psalm 150, repeating the sequence multiple times.

  • Eventually I came up with a way to immerse myself without getting discouraged about how long it was taking me to get through the whole book. For the next thirty years or so I went with this sequence: 1, 21, 41, 61… to 141, and then 2, 22, 42, 62, etc. It sounds a little clunky now, but it worked nicely for me.

  • For the past fifteen years I’ve gone back to the basics, but I read one Psalm a week. That means I’m reading the same Psalm, several times each week. This has been much more fruitful for me. 150 Psalms, 52 weeks – it takes me about 2 ½ years to go through the whole book.

Don’t get hung up when you encounter a Psalm that you can’t relate to. For example, David had real enemies set on revenge. I’m grateful that’s not part of my daily existence. But I remind myself that we’re all in a spiritual battle, so I ask God for his protection and to give me his vision of the spirit world. Additionally, believers around the world are struggling daily with persecution and afflictions. Pray for them as you read.

Yes, there are several “imprecatory” Psalms in which the writer calls down curses on his enemies or implores God to smite the wicked. Although I cringe just like you, I keep reading, and remind myself that life was brutal in those days. Also, if I'm honest, I’ve had thoughts like that. How about you? Jesus had not yet overhauled the “eye for an eye” mentality of our ancestors, but he calls you and me to a higher standard.

All that is to say … if you’re having trouble with a Psalm, be aware of the tendency within you to stand above and judge. Instead, ask God for his help in understanding it, or just focus on a smaller portion. Still struggling? Skip it this time through and go on to the next one.

Psalm 119 – what do you do with 22 strophes (sections) of 8 verses? Good question! It stands alone among the Psalms in its majesty and its emphasis – 176 personal declarations about absorbing God’s word into our lives.

Be creative with your reading of this chapter. I usually break it up into 4 or 5 parts. But I’ve also used it as a stand-alone resource, reading a strophe a day for most of the days of a month.

Along that line, I recently spoke with Bart Anderson, a good friend from my years in Escalon. He shared with me that he was recently directed by his Bible-reading app to some verses from Psalm 119. He recalled how for years we closed the weekly men’s bible study by reciting together one of the strophes of Psalm 119.

Thanks for the reminder, Bart. That makes a great closing prayer and fitting benediction for this post.

129 Your statutes are wonderful; therefore I obey them. 130 The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. 131 I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands. 132 Turn to me and have mercy on me, as you always do to those who love your name. 133 Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me. 134 Redeem me from human oppression, that I may obey your precepts. 135 Make your face shine on your servant and teach me your decrees. 136 Streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed.

* There’s a great verse about that – I’ve banked your promises in the vault of my heart so I won’t sin myself bankrupt. (Psalm 119:11 The Message)

** No, the Psalms weren’t all written by David. He’s one of several people named as an author, including Solomon, Moses, Asaph, Heman and Ethan. Some were written by “the sons of Korah”. Many are anonymous, and I like to think that some of them were women.

*** Psalm 88:18 and Psalm 89:46, New Living Translation.

Hymn: Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee: Words by Henry vanDyke.

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All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version, NIV. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. TM


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