Make the Words Your Own- Using the Psalms as a Tool for Prayer

Make the Words Your Own Sermon Photo

The Psalms

 

Good morning, Church.

Last week, we looked at using the Apostles Creed as a form of prayer.
We sought to confess before God who we believe He is, and to affirm what the universal Church has held to be the truth for centuries.
This morning, I’d like to take a look into perhaps one of the oldest, and yet most overlooked group of prayers we have in the Bible. What’s interesting about it is that it’s probably the longest set of prayers we have. It’s the book of Psalms.

Think about it, right?
There’s 150 Psalms (depending on which translation of Scripture you use) basically smack dab in the middle of Scripture.
But what is a Psalm?
Well, like I eluded to just a moment ago, a Psalm is a prayer. But, in Old Testament times, a Psalm was also a song that was originally sung as a way of praying to God.
A Psalm is also a poem.

Like any music, it has a poetic element to it. So sometimes, the language is a bit different from what we’re used to hearing in typical conversation. But it’s an artistic way of expressing oneself to God. And like any poetry, it’s beautiful. About a year ago, I stumbled across a book in the Barnes & Noble at the Mall of America. I usually stroll through the theology/ religion section, just to see what’s out there. This time, I wandered over to the poetry section. And I happen to come across Rilke’s Book of Hours. The subtitle of the book is “Love poems to God.” It was written by a man named Rainer Rilke, who, upon visiting Germany, was deeply moved by what he came to understand as a “simple spirituality.”
This book then, is his prayerful outpouring of that experience. Remember- it’s poetry, so we can’t take it literally.
I’d like to share one of his poems with you now:

“You are the future,

the red sky before sunrise,

over the fields of time.

You are the cock’s crow when night is done,

you are the dew and the bells of matins,

maiden, stranger, mother, death.

You create yourself in ever-changing shapes

that rise from the stuff of our days-

unsung, unmourned, undescribed,

like a forest we never knew.

You are the deep innerness of all things,

the last word that can never be spoken.

To each of us you reveal yourself differently:

to the ship as coastline, to the shore as a ship.”

Isn’t that beautiful?

And Rilke is expressing his thoughts on God, to God.
I love how he says that God “reveals himself to each of us differently.”
I think it served as a reminder that God is a personal God, who is willing to reveal himself to us based on how He created us.
So, while the Psalms are poetry, and are beautiful in their own right, they also remind us of the beauty of God.
And they do this in the midst of prayer.

See, church, I would make the argument that the book of Psalms as a whole is the prayer book of Christianity as a whole.
But also for each and every follower of Jesus. It’s a personal prayer book for ourselves. Now, obviously, because it’s in Scripture and it’s poetry, the Psalms are written prayers. And while we don’t have the music for the Psalms to sing them (although U2 did a good job of making their own music), we still have the words.

So, to take it a step further, then, the Psalms are the words that God has given to us to pray back to himself.
One of my old Greenville professors in college, Ben Wayman, recently wrote about the Psalms as a tool for prayer in his book, Make the Words Your Own,  and he described them as “words that “become like a mirror” to the one saying them.”

In other words, as we not just recite but seek to pray the Psalms, the words we pray become our own.
See, church, like we talked about in the written prayers sermon, it’s not just about reciting words, or about the “ritual” of it,
nor is it about giving God lip service.

It’s about praying with meaning, with heart, with our very souls. And one of the most profound things about the Psalms is that they cover the entirety of what it means to be human.
There’s several themes that keep popping up time and again throughout Psalms, (according to Wayman):

  • Suffering
  • Betrayal
  • Harassment
  • Guilt
  • Thankfulness
  • Joy
  • Reflection
  • Instruction

If those themes don’t cover the human condition, I don’t know what does.
So even though it’s one of oldest prayer books in the history of Christianity, it’s still very relevant today.

Let’s take a closer look at a few of these themes and Psalms:
For Suffering, let’s look at Psalm 40:1-6. We hear the Psalmist here expressing thanksgiving to God for deliverance from evil, and for blessings, and also (later on in the Psalm) asking for help.

And when we do this, when we pray the Psalms, we make those words of the Psalmist our own words, our own prayers, our own thanksgivings, and confessions and requests. So, we take the words that God has given to us to pray, and we pray them back to God. And God will, in turn, hear our prayer and respond to it as He sees fit.

In a similar way, we see the theme of thankfulness in Psalm 23:
Psalm 23 has become a personal favorite of mine, because I love the imagery of God as a shepherd. Hearing about Him as one who leads and guides us near peaceful waters, as one who restores, or refreshes our souls.

It’s beautiful.

The Psalmist here in these first few verses is expressing deep gratitude to God for God’s role as a shepherd in his life. And hey, it’s pretty well written, too. It’s also a great reminder that God is with us and will bless us even in the midst of enemies.

So where do all these themes and Psalms leave us?

Well, for one thing, they remind us that God gave us words to pray back to himself, so that our prayers might become more effective. For another, they give us words to pray in any and every life situation and circumstance. No matter what we’re going through, there’s a Psalm for that.

The question then becomes:
Are we willing to use it?
Are we willing to sit with the Psalms, to wrestle the language of poetry, to cut to the essence of it so we can become more effective pray-ers in our world?
So here’s my challenge to all of us, starting this week: Pray through the Psalms.
Work your way through all 150 Psalms.

It doesn’t matter how you do it, whether you read one a day, or several a day, or if you focus on one per week.
But no matter what, immerse yourself in the Psalms. Familiarize yourself with them, so that when you are having certain human experiences (for example, living life), you can draw from the Psalms deep, and enriching prayers to God, using God’s own words.

You might be surprised to find that as time goes on, you’ll start to experience your life differently as a result.
In closing, I’d like to share a brief quote one of my spiritual formation professors, Dr. Stephen Martyn, at Asbury Seminary gave me last semester.

It goes like this:
“A psalm always on the lips, Christ always in the heart,”
“From the lips to the mind, so that it can descend to the heart.”
Amen.

(This sermon was originally preached at the Alexandria First Free Methodist Church on August 9th, 2015).

What did you think of this sermon?  Do you have questions or comments?
Please leave them in the box below!

2 Comments

  1. Ellen Mandeville

    Thanks for posting your sermon, Nick. I *finally* read it! One quibble: does praying the psalms make us more effective pray-ers, or draw us deeper into relationship with God? Regardless, thanks for the challenge to pray through the psalms. I plan to start tonight.

    Reply
    1. Nick Scutari (Post author)

      Ellen,

      Thanks for reading and commenting! In my mind, it’s always a “both, and” kind of situation. We are able to pray more effectively, and also be drawn deeper into relationship with God, but I would take it a step further to say that becoming more effective pray-ers is a byproduct of being drawn deeper into relationship with God.
      Great question, and thanks again!
      Peace,

      Nick

      Reply

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