“It does not depend, therefore, on whether the Psalms express adequately that which we feel at a given moment in our heart. If we are to pray right, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our own heart. Not what we want to pray is important, but what God wants us to pray…The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: the Prayerbook of the Bible)
Archive for September, 2015
(a) being securely oriented
(b) being painfully disoriented; and
(c) being surprisingly reoriented
The first situation in this scheme, that of being securely oriented, is a situation of equilibrium. While we all yearn for it, it is not very interesting and it does not produce great prayer or powerful song. It consists of being well-settled, knowing that life makes sense and God is well-placed in heaven, presiding but not bothering. This is the mood of much of the middle-class Church…The Psalms mostly do not emerge out of such situations of equilibrium. Rather, people are driven to such poignant prayer and songs as are found in the Psalter precisely by experiences of dislocation and relocation. It is experiences of being overwhelmed, nearly destroyed, and surprisingly given life that empower us to pray and sing…
[The Psalms highlight] the deep discontinuities in our lives where most of us live, on which we use most of our energies, and about which we are regularly preoccupied…It is the experiences of life that lie beyond our conventional copings that make us eloquent and passionate and that drive us to address ourselves to the Holy One. And it is experiences beyond conventional orientations that come to vivid expression in the Psalms…In the Psalms, we find the voice that dares to speak of these matters with eloquence and passion to the Holy One. Psalms offer speech when life has gone beyond our frail efforts to control…
The Psalms thus propose to speak about human experience in an honest, freeing way. This is in contrast to much human speech and conduct which is in fact a coverup. In most arenas where people live, we are expected and required to speak the language of safe orientation and equilibrium, either to find it so or to pretend we find it so. For the normal, conventional functioning of public life, the raw edges of disorientation and reorientation must be denied or suppressed for purposes of public equilibrium. As a result, our speech is dulled and mundane. Our passion has been stilled and is without imagination. And mostly the Holy One is not addressed–not because we dare not, but because God is far away and hardly seems important. This means that the agenda and intention of the Psalms is considerably at odds with the normal speech of most people, the normal speech of a stable, functioning, self-deceptive culture in which everything must be kept running young and smooth.
Against that, the speech of the Psalms is abrasive, revolutionary, and dangerous. It announces that life is not like that, that our common experience is not one of well-being and equilibrium, but a churning, disruptive experience of dislocation and relocation. Perhaps in our conventional, routinized prayer life that is one of the reasons the Psalter does not yield its power–because out of habit or fatigue or numbness, we try to use the Psalms in our equilibrium. And when we do that, we miss the point of the Psalms. Moreover, our own experience may be left untapped and inarticulate and therefore not liberated…
Most of the Psalms can only be appropriately prayed by people who are living at the edge of their lives, sensitive to the raw hurts, the primitive passions, and the naive elations that are at the bottom of our life. For most of us, liturgical or devotional entry into the Psalms requires a real change of pace. It asks us to depart from the closely managed world of public survival, to move into the open, frightening, healing world of speech with the Holy One.
So let us consider in turn the experiences of disorientation and reorientation that characterize human life that are the driving power of the Psalms. If we move from the premise of equilibrium, we may speak of chaos (disorder) and new order. And these are elemental dimensions, both to our experience and to the Psalms. The Psalms, by and large, emerge from and reflect precisely such situations of chaos and new order. And any attempt to take these speech-events of chaos and new order and make them instruments of conventional equilibrium is a travesty. To make the Psalms serve ‘business as usual’ misunderstands the Psalms, even though habitual use of them has tended to do just that.” (Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit, 2nd ed., pp. 2-9)
“The end of prayer is praise. The Psalms show praise as the end of prayer in both meanings of the word: the terminus, the last word in the final Psalm 150; and the goal at which all the psalm-prayers arrive after their long travels through the unmapped back countries of pain, doubt, and trouble, with only occasional vistas of the sunlit lands, along the way. This last word is also, most significantly, the first word. The verb ‘praise’ (halel) in its noun form (tehillim) furnishes the title of our prayer book. ‘Book of Praises’ (sepher tehillim) is the Hebrew title to the 150 prayers that we commonly name ‘The Psalms’…
This title, ‘Praises,’ catches our attention because it is inaccurate. Most psalms are complaints. They are calls of help by helpless and hurting men and women. They are wrung out of desperate conditions. The definitive Psalms’ scholar, Hermann Gunkel, said that the prayer of complaint was the backbone of the Psalter. How can it be appropriate, then, to name these prayers ‘Praises’? Is this false advertising, an attractive smile pasted on the cover of a book that contains a lot of pain, doubt, and trouble? Does the title, in order to involve us in what otherwise might repel, misrepresent the basic nature of prayer as something more pleasant than the data of daily experience warrants, a ‘spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down’? A life of prayer forces us to deal with the reality of the world and of our own lives at a depth and with an honesty that is quite unheard of by the prayer less, and much of that reality we would certainly avoid if we could. Do we really want to feel this deeply? Do we want to think this far? The Psalms take us to the painful heart of rejections and alienations and guilts that we could live on the surface of much more happily. If we knew that was where prayer takes us would we have ever signed on? Is the title a pious deceit?
‘Praises’ as a title is not statistically accurate but it is accurate all the same. It is accurate because it accurately describes the end, the finished product. All prayer, pursued far enough, becomes praise. Any prayer, no matter how desperate its origin, no matter how angry and fearful the experiences it traverses, ends up in praise. It does not always get there quickly or easily–the trip can take a lifetime–but the end is always praise. ‘Praises,’ in fact, is the only accurate title for our prayer book, for it is the goal that shapes the journey: ‘The end is where we start from.’
The end has far greater shaping over our lives than the beginning. That which we are made for is more significant in our development than the biology of our making. In Aristotle’s philosophical analysis of causes, it is not the first cause (the kick that gets us going) but the final cause (the lure that pulls us to the finish) that is uniquely and ultimately decisive. We are not intricately engineered genetic chips that when programmed correctly make the economy prosper; we are unfinished creatures, ravenously purpose-hungry, alive with possibilities. For humans the future is the most creative and the most essential aspect of time. Human life is that ‘paradoxical reality which consists in deciding what we are going to do, therefore in being what we not yet are, in starting to be the future.’ The Bible spends only a few pages establishing the conditions of our beginnings; and then several hundred pages cultivating in us a taste for the future–immersing us in a narrative in which the future is always impinging on the present, so that we live out of our beginnings and by the means that are in accordance with the reality of our ends. Not only as a child and adolescent but also as an adult, ‘what I want to be when I grow up’ has far more influence on what I say and do and become than the genetic code I received at my conception.
Prayer is our most intense and interior act of futurity. All prayers, by definition, are directed to God, and this aims brings them, finally into the presence of God where ‘everything that has breath’ praises the Lord. Praise is the deep, even if often hidden, eschatological dimension in prayer…’Most joy is anticipatory,’ says Karl Barth. ‘It normally has something of an eschatological character’…The five hallelujah psalms with Psalm 145 as a foundation are a cathedral built entirely of praise. No matter how much we suffer, no matter our doubts, no matter how angry we get, no matter how many times we have asked in desperation or doubt, ‘How long?’, prayer develops finally into praise. Everything finds its way to the doorstep of praise. Praise is the consummating prayer. This is not to say that other prayers are inferior to praise, only that all prayer pursued far enough, becomes praise.
This architectonic form [of the Psalter as a whole], besides assuring completeness also suggests that there are no shortcuts. The thoughtful and painstaking process of selecting, arranging, and concluding is the exact antithesis of glibness. This is not a ‘word of praise’ slapped onto whatever mess we are in at the moment. This crafted conclusion for the Psalms tells us that our prayers are going to end in praise, but that it is also going to take awhile. Don’t rush it. It may take years, decades even, before certain prayers arrive at the hallelujahs, at Psalms 146-150 with their acrostic foundation in Psalm 145. Not every prayer is capped off with praise. In fact most prayers, if the Psalter is a true guide, are not. But prayer, a praying life, finally becomes praise. Prayer is always reaching towards praise and will finally arrive there. If we persist in prayer, laugh and cry, doubt and believe, struggle and dance and then struggle again, we will surely end up at Psalm 150…
Like the notes of music that anticipate melodic completion by notes yet to come, prayer has this element of futurity always in it, pulling us to the region of completion, the region of glory and praise. The future is not a blank to be filled in, depending on our mood, by either fantasy or horror, but a source of brightness that we await and receive. Our lives are still outstanding. Our prayers give expression to lives that go far beyond the past and present and reach into what is promised and prophesied. When we pray we can no longer confine our understanding of ourselves to who we are or have been; we understand ourselves in terms of possibilities yet to be realized–in St. Paul’s phrase, ‘the glory yet to be revealed.'” (Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, pp. 121-128)