Ep 109 Encountering the Psalms
Ladysmith Black Mambazo sings Inhliziuop Zethu: You will make may heart pure. Psalm 51:10
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I'm Jamie Bahr, and this is Unlocking Christian Spiritual Practices. Join me as we look at the practices that are essential for growing responsibility and expanding leadership in our families, churches, and communities. In this podcast, we're going to talk about encountering the Psalms. It's where the Holy Spirit connects your heart with the heart of God.
It's really not so much about how you engage with the Psalms, but it's the way in which you engage them. Through the rhythms of poetry and music, the Holy Spirit opens the way to abide in God's love and grace. The poetry of the Psalms speak to the emotions in our lives that reveal something about God and about ourselves.
We have a lot of emotions going on today as we deal with this pandemic. Maybe when this all started, you were anxious, and maybe now, perhaps, you have a sense of acceptance. Well, no matter what you're feeling today, the Psalms give us poetry and music to speak for us. You've heard it said, "Where words fail, poetry and music speak."
Well, how does it feel really to encounter the Psalms? Well, I couldn't help think of music like Hawaiian music. Wow, that stirs for me so many images and emotions. The feeling of Hawaii, the wind, the sound of palm leaves rattling in that wind, the sound of the waves constantly rolling in, the feel of the sun. There's a lot going on there but it does create certain senses, certain feelings, emotions. And also, I was going to say, longing too. I mean, it makes me long to go to Hawaii, to feel that again.
Another one are the songs that are with the opera. There's a lot of emotions in an opera. And actually, it's sung in Italian, so I really don't even know what they're saying. But there's so much emotion in the way they sing that it draws you in, and you just can sense there's so much beauty there. But it begins to speak to you about the emotion that's going on.
Well, there's one more I think of. Maybe you've heard of the singing group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. They're from South Africa and they're a male choral group singing in this local style traditional music of the Zulu people. And they really became quite well known after singing with Paul Simon in his album, Graceland. The harmony that this group creates with just their voices is so beautiful.
I listen because it touches my soul even though I don't even know the words they are singing. Yet I really don't want it to end, so I play it again. Now, is it the rhythm or is it the deep sounds or the harmony that they sing in? I can't say that it's words and yet they do sing words in a rhythm or harmony that is so poetic.
I heard them sing once as an intro to one of my devotions online. And what they were singing is, “You will make my heart pure” in their own language. I looked it up and I couldn't figure out what they were singing. So, “You will make my heart pure.” It was so beautiful. It really drew me in.
Now, if I just read these words on a page, it would really be so bland. I doubt that my heart would be touched because the focus is really on reading with the brain instead of feeling the emotion or the groaning of my soul. And that's what it really is. The groaning of my soul, longing for an encounter with God.
This is how I have experienced the Psalms. You could just read them silently, but if you pray them or you sing them, it's a completely different experience. When you read out loud or sing a favorite Psalm over and over, you come to realize that God is speaking his love through you so deeply. It connects you to God and you discover an emotion that perhaps you didn't even know was there. You really can't predict what emotion will come up for you or how God wants to connect with you in some way through that emotion, but it reveals his loving heart for you.
So we have prayers of the heart, or we have the Psalms. God gave us the Psalms to know his heart and his deep love for us. We try using words, but often words fail us. Here is where the Holy Spirit steps in with “sighs too deep for words.” So it's a release of our spirit into the spirit of God, whereby the spirit actually prays through us.
Encountering the prayers of the heart is first through love, and the heart responds to the overwhelming goodness of God. So, prayer of the heart is an ‘Abba’ prayer, where we, as John Wesley might describe, have our hearts strangely warmed. It is the heart that prays. “It's to the voice of the heart that God listens, and it is the heart that he answers.”
Our lives have a rhythm and God's creation has a rhythm. Think about how often you look at something in nature and see a pattern or design that is repeated beautifully. A shell, a flower, the ocean waves, all of God's creation has this rhythm, day and night, the planets. Through the Psalms, we come to understand how our emotions are to be held within the rhythm of life lived in God's presence.
We are God's poem. “We are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus.” The Psalms give great power for faith and life. This is simply because it preserves a rich language about God and our relationships to him. Dallas Willard tells us that, “if you bury yourself in the Psalms, you emerge knowing God and understanding life.” Wow, that's incredible. Most scholars say that Jesus most likely prayed all of Psalm 22 on the cross because Jews knew so many of the Psalms by memory.
Consider then that Jesus may have prayed these verses that he quoted during his temptation, not just recited them. Can't you tell when someone is reciting or praying something? There's real emotion involved. Psalm praying is different from the systematic Psalm reading. So to pray the Psalms is to taste it and digest it as you read, to be stirred in the heart with emotion that brings you to life.
So let's take a look at three practices that I want to give you to help you to encounter the Psalms, to connect with God and your emotions. The first way is to pray very slowly, not moving from one passage to another until you have sensed the very heart of what you have read, and then turn the phrases into a prayer to God from the emotion or the images that come to mind or expressed in that Psalm.
Once you sense the Lord's presence, the content of what you have read is no longer important. The scripture has served its purpose. It has quieted your mind. It has brought you to him. At this point, you can hear more clearly. You are right now, you would call it, beholding him or waiting upon the Lord. You might even pause to write or journal about what movements you're feeling at this point in your heart, and then remain there for a length of time.
It takes time to describe these movements, so don't rush this. Often we have a hard time describing how we feel, what words would describe the emotion you're currently having. I know sometimes I've done my emotions and felt, am I anxious? No, it's not really anxious. I am concerned. Am I concerned or am I worried about something? So you keep moving deeper and try to name that emotion. And you will know when you hit on just the right one that describes what you're feeling.
Now, a second way is with the practice of Lectio Divina. This time, you prepare for your prayer by reading out loud a Psalm or several phrases at a time, then describe what phrase stands out to you. Now, take time to consider what emotions you are sensing. And finally, is there an invitation from God for you?
Then you pray with that emotion and the words that stood out to you in a Psalm, and contemplate for a moment. What is God saying to you through this Psalm; through his Word speaking to you? It's a wonderful time to once again get out your journal and journal this process as you move from the scripture, looking at special words, writing down the feeling, sensing what God is saying to you.
Finally, a third way is to choose a topic that honestly expresses your feelings today in your present circumstances. Now, this takes a time of really being open to God. You're actually meditating on how you are feeling really deep down. You wait in silence to discover what emotion seems to be surfacing in you that morning or evening.
Now, poetry is the language of the heart. So we wait to discover how God is speaking very personally through your emotions. Now, when I'm talking about trying to discover exactly expressing your feelings for today in your present circumstances, if you're feeling anxious or fearful, you would look at Psalm 70. So this is more of a topic when you're looking at the Psalms.
If it's envy, try Psalm 73, or despair, try Psalm 77. If you're feeling sick and tired and just worn out, Psalm 6 is good. Or maybe you're full of gratefulness when you get up in the morning, Psalm 9. Or maybe real contentment from something that happened that day, look at Psalm 23. If you're feeling awed by God, try Psalm 29. So this is a topic, choosing a practice that uses a topic. The goal is to experience God's love and sense the prayer that God has for you. So to soothe your soul and to reveal to you his deep love.
Once when I started to set aside time to reflect and pray through the Psalms, I discovered a way into the presence of God, really asking for nothing, but just being open to God's will and grace. I noticed how I moved closer to God in prayer. And at the same time, I even moved closer to others. Meaning that this gave me a greater understanding of the feelings of others that maybe I encountered that day.
I noticed that my thoughts of other people became more understanding, a need for compassionate caring of the other. This kind of prayer is simply a gift of being in the presence of God. It does transform you. Another time while praying the Psalms, my heart was so touched that I just began to cry. And every time I wanted to speak, I couldn't, I just cried.
I cried for almost a week. I even went to see my spiritual director and I couldn't talk there either. Our time was just me crying and not knowing why. I couldn't really describe an emotion, but I kept this in mind as the weeks went on. And over time, I found the words to express what I was feeling that day. This was a kind of a divine rest to discover this. It helped me to overcome my own alienation from God.
I didn't realize it at the time, but over the course of several weeks, God showed me how much I missed my husband who had passed away several years ago. God was really tugging at me, but what was God inviting me to do? I really didn't know. So I just waited. While reading Richard Foster's book on prayer, I came across the prayer of relinquishment. And strangely as I read this prayer, I realized the problem was, I didn't want to relinquish my former life with my husband.
My former identity was so much of his life. He was a pilot for the airlines, we traveled; we had special times together, flying together. I was his co-pilot flying small aircraft, and I just loved it. We had so many wonderful plans and things to share in the future, but... it wasn't to be. I knew God was asking me to let go of this identity, to let go of all the dreams and hopes that my husband and I held together.
And you know what, when I did let go and I relinquished the future to God, it allowed God to lead me into deeper intimacy with him. Oh my, what a struggle this was. God showed me that I wasn't giving up, but seeing a new way or direction for life, that God was inviting me to walk with him at the center. There was a great sense of release and freedom that I really hadn't known before.
The Psalms really lead you closer to God and open the way to freedom within. What do you think is in your way of knowing God more deeply and holding him at the center of your life? Richard Foster states that there is an important struggle in this kind of prayer. One that leads a person to fall into the arms of Jesus and not just surrender to fate. Boy, did I need to read that. There really was this release that brings new life with new direction and vocation.
He also states that, “you surrender to something greater through the crucifix of the will.” This is really being honest with yourself. It's true freedom, freedom from the self to find peace, to dialogue with God. You learn how truly to live with a very one you lost. This is God's time of then, and the now, and the not yet future. It's truly filled with hope.
Finally, I want to say that silence and solitude are key to entering a sacred space like this, to experience the living Jesus and the Holy Spirit with the Father at the center, allowing your soul to be led by the Holy Spirit to a new life and a deeper relationship with God. The Psalms lead us to seeing or praying to find words to express all of our human conditions and emotions whatever your present circumstances are today, or whatever you've experienced in the past.
In the Psalms, nothing is hidden from God. We can bring all that is real, all of our circumstances into the only relationship that can bless the best and heal the worst in us. Encountering the Psalms gives us words to glorify, confess, hope, ask, and even curse. And in doing so, they gave us permission to share our whole being with God. “Sing the Psalms and they will renew you from head to toe, from heart to mind. Pray these poems, and they will sustain you on a long, hard, but exhilarating road of Christian discipleship.”
Through the words of the Psalms, we learn how to speak the language of God back to God and allow him to shape our hearts, to shape our desires. They are a gift to us as a steady foundation of healthy Christian living.
If you want the resources for this podcast, please go to my website at UnlockingChristianSpiritualPracticesPodcast.com. In my next podcast, we will look at Christian Meditation, the prayer-filled life that cultivates an attitude and an outlook from an open space in our hearts for God to work. Thank you for listening and blessings on your journey.