Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Book Excerpt: God's Prayer Book by Ben Patterson

It is time to play a Wild Card! Every now and then, a book that I have chosen to read is going to pop up as a FIRST Wild Card Tour. Get dealt into the game! (Just click the button!) Wild Card Tours feature an author and his/her book's FIRST chapter!

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Today's Wild Card author is:

and the book:

God’s Prayer Book

Salt River imprint from Tyndale House (September 22, 2008)


Ben Patterson is the campus pastor of Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA. A contributing editor to Christianity Today and the Leadership Journal, he has written several books: He Has Made Me Glad, Serving God, Waiting, Deepening Your Conversation with God, and the Prayer Devotional Bible. Ben and his wife have three sons and a daughter.

Product Details:

List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Salt River imprint from Tyndale House (September 22, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1414316658
ISBN-13: 978-1414316659



James Boice said learning to pray is a little like learning to play the violin with the virtuosos. No instrument sounds worse in the beginning stages of learning; it’s all screech and scratch. But if the student is determined to play well, he checks the program guide for the classical music station and notes when the violin concertos will be aired. He buys the music score for each concerto and does his best to play along with the orchestra. At first he sounds terrible. As time passes, however, he begins little by little to sound more and more like the orchestra. But all along, as he groans on his instrument, the orchestra plays the music beautifully—his poor performance is caught up and completed in the music of the masters. So it is with us and prayer: By praying the Psalms back to God, we learn to pray in tune with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.1

It is no accident that the great prayers of the book of Psalms are also songs. They are the sheet music, the score and libretto of prayer. They are the building blocks for the music of eternity. Better than the things we ask God for in prayer is the God we pray to—and with—and the sweet music we make as we do.

I am learning to pray in harmony with the Psalms, but I must admit I got off to a slow start. I became a Christian at age ten, but it wasn’t until decades later that the Psalms began to teach me to pray. So although I’m now well into adulthood, you are reading the words of a new convert. I’m still wide eyed and breathless and maybe a little over the top with enthusiasm when I talk about their value. If I succeed with this book, you will be too.

There is no better place in all of Scripture than the Psalms to learn to be with God and to see with the eyes of faith the face of the One who longs to form us fully in his image. But the Psalms can be hard; they often stretch and perplex as they teach. How could it be otherwise? The Psalms are God’s prayer book, and they teach us to talk to God in his own language.

Learning to pray is, in fact, like learning language. Most babies come into the world full of some very strong desires and feelings. They are quite capable of expressing them in grunts, gurgles, squeals, and sobs. But it’s a stretch to call their utterances language. It would be tragic if, at age eighteen, these noises were still all they knew about communication. And it would be worse than tragic if at age eighteen they were still asking for the things they wanted at three months, if their desires had not expanded and matured as they learned to speak.

The process of learning language is complex and wonderful; it begins with a child listening to his or her parents, then mimicking and copying what he or she hears. But a child is not a parrot, and very quickly mimicry turns to meaning. Words and ideas and desires match up with each other and are woven together in syntax and grammar. With language comes a culture and a way of understanding the world and other people. It’s marvelous what happens when we learn language: We are taken out of ourselves to what is beyond ourselves. It’s not just our informing the world who we are; it’s the world informing us who it is. It’s not just our telling others what we want; it’s others telling us what they want. Language changes us, making us more than we were when we were merely trying to express ourselves.

Prayer, like language, begins with being able to hear. Prayer starts not when we speak to God but when God speaks to us. In the beginning was the Word; God’s word, not ours. Before all time, before you and I were, was the Word; the Light that gives light and life to everyone.2 There would be no speech if God had not first spoken. We would have nothing to say if God had not first said something to us. Ultimately then, all our prayers are answers to God’s prayer—his gracious Word of love to us! We love, and we pray, because he first loved us.3 That’s what Dietrich Bonhoeffer was referring to when he wrote, “The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.”4 The Bible, the written Word of God, tells us what God wants, and more important, what God is like. It expresses his will and reveals his character. The relationship between the Bible and prayer is profound. This is especially true when it comes to the Psalms.

Picture it this way: Children and other novices to the Scriptures have long been told that the best way to find the book of Psalms, the longest book in the Bible, is to put their fingers in the middle of the Bible—in its heart, so to speak. What is the book of Psalms? It is a book of prayers. And the longest prayer in this longest book is Psalm 119, a prayer about God’s Word, the Scriptures. Prayer is at the heart of the Bible, and the Bible is in the heart of prayer.

But that’s just a picture, an illustration of the relationship between the Psalms and prayer. Better is a demonstration—the prayer life of our Lord Jesus Christ. At the end of his life, as he hung dying on the cross, he went to the Scriptures for his prayers—more specifically, to the Psalms. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46) is a quotation from Psalm 22:1. “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!” (Luke 23:46) comes from Psalm 31:5. At the point of his greatest anguish and extremity, Jesus turned to the Bible for his prayers. Charles Spurgeon reminds us that, when he most needed to pray, Jesus, the grand original thinker, saw no need to be original or extemporaneous. “How instructive is this great truth that the Incarnate Word lived on the Inspired Word! It was food to him, as it is to us; and . . . if Christ thus lived upon the Word of God, should not you and I do the same? . . . I think it well worthy of your constant remembrance that, even in death, our blessed Master showed the ruling passion of his spirit, so that his last words were a quotation from Scripture.”5

As a devout Jew, Jesus considered the Psalms to be his prayer book. A close look at the Psalms shows the Lord’s Prayer—the prayer Jesus taught us to pray—to be a summary and distillation of all the prayers that are to be found in the heart of the Bible. It’s all there in the Psalms: prayer that God’s name be hallowed, that his rule be supreme and his will be done, that our needs be met and our sins forgiven, that we be kept safe from all danger to soul and body.

Martin Luther loved the Psalms. He called them “a little Bible,” because they contain, “set out in the briefest and most beautiful form, all that is to be found in the Bible.”

Sizing Up the Psalms
The psalms that first got my attention were the psalms that always seems to be the right thing to pray, no matter the mood or situation. I call them the “one size fits all” psalms, like the band on my adjustable baseball hat. These psalms can be expanded or contracted to fit any situation. For example, Psalm 103 is always the right thing to pray—always true, always fitting, in every time and place:

Let all that I am praise the Lord;

with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name.

Let all that I am praise the Lord;

may I never forget the good things he does for me.

He forgives all my sins

and heals all my diseases.

He redeems me from death

and crowns me with love and tender mercies.

He fills my life with good things.

My youth is renewed like the eagle’s!

Next came the psalms that seemed to fit my mood, that helped me say what I felt in the moment. I call them the “this size fits some” psalms. For instance, when I was feeling guilty, speechless with remorse, Psalm 51 was a perfect fit. No matter how mute guilt had made me, I could open my Bible and my mouth and say, “Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins.” Same with Psalm 130: “Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive? But you offer forgiveness, that we might learn to fear you.” I literally couldn’t have said it better myself. If God held my sins against me, I’d be toast, dead meat, on the ash heap. But he forgives them all! Therefore I bow in abject, broken, and joyful reverence. Psalms like these gave me confidence to speak to God when I least felt that I could. They still do.

Adding up the psalms in the two categories I could relate to-—the “this size fits some” psalms, or the mood psalms; and the “one size fits all” psalms—I didn’t know what to do with all the rest, which was most of them. The most obvious example is Psalm 137, with its chilling last line: “Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks!” But that’s an extreme example. There were plenty of psalms that seemed too remote from my experience to have much to do with my prayer life. Psalm 87 has a good line or two if I was preaching a sermon that needed to reference ancient Jewish attitudes toward Jerusalem, but otherwise I didn’t know how I could meaningfully pray personally,

On the holy mountain

stands the city founded by the Lord.

He loves the city of Jerusalem

more than any other city in Israel.

O city of God,

what glorious things are said of you!

I was really at a loss with psalms like Psalm 88. It doesn’t have one happy thing to say about God or life and ends with, “You have taken away my companions and loved ones. Darkness is my closest friend.” Those lines do not describe anything I have ever felt. Maybe they will someday, but so far, so good. But most problematic was Psalm 22, which Jesus quoted on the cross. I could preach this psalm as a meditation on the sufferings of Christ, but I couldn’t get myself to pray, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help?” Would it not be blasphemous for me, Ben Patterson, to pray what only Jesus could pray?

My enemies surround me like a pack of dogs;

an evil gang closes in on me.

They have pierced my hands and feet.

I can count all my bones.

My enemies stare at me and gloat.

They divide my garments among themselves

and throw dice for my clothing.

So there were a lot of psalms that seemed either alien or off limits. Most of them, actually. My slim psalm repertoire was a picture of the thinness of my prayer life—and my heart.

It was also a picture of my shallow sense of Christian identity. I was what someone called a “yearbook Christian.” I came to the Psalms like I came to my twenty-year high school reunion—thumbing through the index of my old yearbook, looking only for the page numbers of the pictures of me and my friends, and ignoring the rest.

Not Much in My Heart to Pour Out
My sophomore year in college, my friends and I decided to spend two hours in prayer for the salvation of the unsaved high school students we were working with. We purposed to storm heaven and bring down the blessings of God for these kids. One of us had a part-time job in a church, so he asked the pastor if we could meet for prayer in the church building, a logical place to pray, one would think. The pastor told us just to show up some evening, any evening, and since my friend had a key to the building, we could pray anywhere we wanted. But the night we came to pray the church was bustling with activity, as various committee meetings, youth programs, and choir practice were spread throughout the facility. It was busier and more full of distraction than our homes and dorm rooms. The only free space was a large janitor’s closet that smelled strongly of detergent and disinfectant.

So we gathered in that closet to pour out our hearts to God. We had two hours to do nothing but stand before the Lord’s throne and plead for the salvation of souls. We prayed every which way we knew: We praised God and confessed our sins and lifted up the names of all the students we could think of. Then we praised and confessed and interceded some more. When we had prayed for everything and in every way we could think of, over and over, I looked at my watch to see if we had any time left. Just fifteen minutes had passed! The next one hour and forty-five minutes of prayer were the longest and slowest I had ever experienced.

I came to pour out my heart to God and discovered that there wasn’t much in my heart to pour out. It would be years before I understood why I saw prayer in the same way I saw the Psalms—only as a tool to help me ask God for what I wanted. The problem was that I wanted so little! What I didn’t understand was that learning to pray was learning to desire the things God wants to give, and then asking him for them.

The greatest enemy of prayer is not asking for too much of God but for too little. We’re like Bontsha the Silent in the Yiddish writer Isaac Peretz’s sad tale. All his life he had been denied, passed over, oppressed, and forgotten. Chronic disappointment had robbed him of the ability even to dream or desire; he had come to expect nothing and want nothing. He was Bontsha the Silent.

When he died he found himself standing before God in the court of heaven. God smiled tenderly at Bontsha, and said, “My son, all your joyless life you had nothing. You lived without hope. But now, here in my presence, there is the fullness of joy, eternal pleasures at my right hand. Only ask, and you shall receive. Anything, anything you want, shall be yours.”

The little man with a shrunken soul squinted his eyes and pondered the offer. “Anything? Anything at all?” he asked suspiciously.

“Yes,” said the Almighty. “Anything you want.”

After a long pause, he said to the Almighty, “I would like a freshly baked roll, with real butter.”

Heaven wept. The greater tragedy of Bontsha’s life was not what he had been denied, but what he had ceased to desire. God had been reduced to the size of a loaf of bread and butter. This man had become far too easily pleased.

It wasn’t—and isn’t—that Bontsha’s desires or ours are unworthy to express to God in prayer. He is our loving and compassionate Father, and he listens to all we say with a kind and wise heart. But he knows better than we do what we need—and better yet, he desires things for us that we may not even desire for ourselves.

More than a Tool for Self-Expression
Prayer is more than a tool for self-expression, a means to get God to give us what we want. It is a means he uses to give us what he wants, and to teach us to want what he wants. Holy Scripture in general, and the Psalms in particular, teach us who God is and what he wants to give.

When the members of his synagogue complained that the words of the liturgy did not express what they felt, Abraham Heschel, the great philosopher of religion, replied wisely and very biblically. He told them that the liturgy wasn’t supposed to express what they felt; they were supposed to feel what the liturgy expressed. To be taught by the Bible to pray is to learn to want and feel what the Bible expresses—to say what it means and mean what it says.

Those who have practiced this kind of prayer over time make a surprising discovery: As they learn to feel what the Psalms express, their hearts and desires are enlarged. They find that what they once regarded as strong desires were really weak, puerile little wishes, debased inklings of what is good. Of course! Would not the God who made us in his own image understand better than we ever could what we really need? And shouldn’t we ask him for it? As C. S. Lewis put it,

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.8

The best part of prayer is who you pray to. Answers to prayer are wonderful, but the Answerer is better. Spend enough time with Jesus, and you’ll start to look and think and act like Jesus. Seeing is becoming. The church father Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God.” It’s true: God is never more glorified than when we come alive to the vision of God. Prayer is anticipation and preparation for the great day promised in Scripture when we will see Christ fully and “will be like him, for we will see him as he really is.”9

Augustine prayed,

How shall I call upon my God, my God and my Lord, since in truth when I call upon him I call him into myself? Is there any place within me where God can dwell? How can God come into me, God who made heaven and earth? O Lord my God, is there any place in me that can contain you?10

Is there any place in us that can contain God? No, there is not. Something must expand us for that to happen. The Psalms are God’s gracious gift to us to do that very thing. How sweet and kind of God to give us a book of prayers in his Word. This Word “is alive and powerful . . . sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.”11 This is the very Word he gives us to pray in the Psalms!

Paul coined a word to describe the character of Scripture: He said it is “inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Greek is literally “God-breathed.” The breath of God permeates the Bible. The breath of God is the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit who spoke light into darkness and turned dust into living beings made in the image of God. This is the Spirit who speaks to us in the Bible, making it “useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right” (2 Timothy 3:16). With this thought no doubt in mind, the poet George Herbert described prayer as “God’s breath in man returning to his birth.”12 The same Breath that gives us breath to pray comes to us through the God-breathed Scriptures. What we inhale in the Word of God, we exhale in prayer. Like language, what comes in comes out, changing us in the process.

Certainly, God invites us to pour out our hearts to him. The Psalms, which John Calvin called “an anatomy of all parts of the human soul,” can help us do that.13 All the joys, pleasures, hopes, fears, despairs, doubts, heartaches, terrors, and longings of which we are capable are mirrored, clarified, sanctified, and transformed in the Psalms, as are all the ways we may pray: supplication, intercession, praise, thanks, lament, and meditation. The Psalms, as many have said, are a mirror; they will reveal you. Yet they are much more. Read them and they will read you. Pray them and they will change you.

Prayer is better than a tool for mere self-expression, unless the self being expressed is the self being shaped by the Word of God into the image of Christ. And who is Christ, but the new Adam, the true human, the faithful Son who lived as we were all created by God to live? When we sin we are apt to excuse ourselves and say, “I’m only human.” But Jesus knows better. He points to himself and says, in effect, “When you sin, you are less than human.” We say, “Just be yourself when you pray.” Jesus says, in effect, “You need to be a self, a true self, before you can be yourself.”

To be in God’s presence is to be transformed. At the end of The Divine Comedy, Dante writes of passing through the levels of hell and purgatory before ascending through heaven into God’s very presence. He tries to describe what he saw when he looked into the face of God. Words fail him, for human language cannot express such a sight. But he does describe the effect gazing into the face of God has on his will and desire:

But now my desire and will were revolved, like a wheel which is moved evenly, by the love that moves the sun and other stars.14

The same love that moves stars and constellations and nebulae moves you. The apostle Paul said that to be in the presence of God is to have a veil lifted so we “. . . can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image.”15

James Gilmour, the great Scottish missionary to Mongolia, went to the Psalms again and again when he was stuck in his prayer life, powerless to generate devotion on his own. “When I feel I cannot make headway in devotion, I open the Psalms and push in my canoe, and let myself be carried along in the stream of devotion which flows through the whole book. The current always sets toward God, and in most places is strong and deep.”16

It’s about Us
So learning to pray is learning to ask for the things that God wants to give. It is to be expanded in mind and spirit. There’s a second thing I didn’t understand about prayer that night in the janitor’s closet: Prayer is not just about me; it’s about us. This is especially the case with the Psalms-—the “one size fits some” and the “one size fits all” types. The Psalms were first the prayers of Israel, the people of God. With the coming of Christ they continue to be the prayers of Israel, but now it is the new Israel, the church—all those Jesus “ransomed . . . for God from every tribe and language and people and nation . . . [and] caused . . . to become a Kingdom of priests for our God” (Revelation 5:9-10). For millennia the people of God have prayed the Psalms, corporately and individually, but with the accent always on corporate prayer.

My problem with the Psalms was my problem with prayer: There was too much “me and Jesus” in my praying, and there needed to be a lot more “we and Jesus.” Eugene Peterson is right on the mark when he writes, “No Christian is an only child.”17 I never pray merely as an individual. Whether I am physically alone or in a group when I pray, I always pray as a member of the Body of Christ, a priest in a whole Kingdom of priests. To come into the presence of the living God is always to come with all those other people who, like me, have been given the same privilege. To ignore them is to reject the gift. “Prayer is an act, indeed the act of fellowship,” writes Peter Taylor Forsyth. “We cannot truly pray for ourselves without passing beyond ourselves and our individual experience. . . . Even private prayer is common prayer.”18

Now that is a liberating thought! When I pray, even if I am alone, I may imagine myself standing in the midst of a colossal assembly of God’s people, “from every tribe and language and people and nation”19 praying with them. That insight alone would have transformed that smelly janitor’s closet into a place of wonder and awe. According to Hebrews 12, when we pray we enter into a scene that is something like the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, times a billion: exuberant, majestic, noisy, the mother of all prayer meetings. For when we pray we come to:

Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to countless thousands of angels in a joyful gathering . . . to the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven . . . to God himself, who is the judge over all things . . . to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect. (Hebrews 12:22-23)

We Don’t Start the Praying, We Join the Praying
I am humbled and thrilled to know that the praying doesn’t begin when I begin to pray. When I begin to pray, I join the praying! The implications are stunning. When we pray we participate in what the Apostles’ Creed calls “the communion of saints.” We stand before the throne of God with all who are his, past, present, and future. Peter Kreeft calls God the “eternal contemporary,” meaning Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are as alive to him as we are.20 They are really there with us in God’s presence, along with countless others, living and dead: Moses and Peter and Paul and J. S. Bach; Luther, Augustine, Aquinas, and my dad. And you. We’re all there together.

Enter the Psalms: I may not personally be in the dark pit the man who prayed Psalm 88 was in, but there are many who were and are this very moment, my sisters and brothers in the persecuted church worldwide. We are part of the same Body; we’re family in a family closer and more enduring than any earthly family. The psalm enables me to enter into real fellowship with them, whether or not I ever meet them on earth, whether or not I ever experience personally what they experience. Their experiences are ours. I can pray that psalm, and as I do, I pray with them and for them. I may not know their names, but I am, in a very concrete way, obeying Scripture’s command to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”21 The first time I prayed Psalm 88 that way, tears flowed as I saw myself standing with those who grieve so deeply, and praying with them as I prayed for them,

O Lord, God of my salvation,

I cry out to you by day.

I come to you at night.

Now hear my prayer;

listen to my cry.

For my life is full of troubles,

and death draws near.

I am as good as dead,

like a strong man with no strength left.

They have left me among the dead,

and I lie like a corpse in a grave.

I am forgotten,

cut off from your care.

You have thrown me into the lowest pit,

into the darkest depths.22

Your Place in God’s Story
It took a while for me to appreciate what Paul meant when he said we Gentiles, by the grace of God, have been grafted into the vine of Israel.23 But when the lights came on, I was stunned and delighted to realize that their story is my story too. It’s our story. What happened to Israel at the Red Sea and Sinai and Meribah is as much about me as it is about them. I began to see my name written into the whole biblical story. I started reading and praying the Psalms like a child learning how to read, learning a new “vocabulary, a grammar, and a plot line”24—discovering a family tree I didn’t know I had. Huge parcels of the Psalms that had formerly seemed to belong to someone else started feeling like home, like Psalm 106:

The people made a calf at Mount Sinai;

they bowed before an image made of gold.

They traded their glorious God

for a statue of a grass-eating bull.

They forgot God, their savior,

who had done such great things in Egypt—

such wonderful things in the land of Ham,

such awesome deeds at the Red Sea.

So he declared he would destroy them.

But Moses, his chosen one, stepped between the Lord and the people.

He begged him to turn from his anger and not destroy them.25

I had known that story for a long time—how those foolish folks had sinned so stupidly but Moses had prayed for them and God had relented in his judgment. I had even made “life application” from that story as the Scriptures encouraged me to do: “These things happened to them as examples for us. They were written down to warn us who live at the end of the age.”26 Yes, of course, I do the same kinds of things they did. God forgive me.

But now! I was no longer learning from them; I was learning about us. This sin problem is not just my problem; it’s our problem. The implications are critical to spiritual health. I tended to think I sinned mainly in isolation, as an individual. I thought I was taking responsibility for my own actions when I confessed my sins privately, but I was really separating myself from the protection of the community of God’s people, the Body of Christ. Sin flourishes in isolation, for we belong to Christ’s Body, not as members of a group, but as organs in a body. A member of a group can survive outside the group, but a member of a body dies outside the body. My individualistic approach to my sin increased the power that sin had over me. There is great comfort and strength in being able to pray, after a long litany of confession like Psalm 106, “Save us, O Lord our God! Gather us back from among the nations, so we can thank your holy name and rejoice and praise you.”27

Merely knowing this much that night in the janitor’s closet would have been a great encouragement to that little band of praying students. The walls with their shelves of detergent and disinfectants would have been pushed back and opened to include a lot more people—and some very fascinating people, at that. We would have been strengthened to see that our prayers were not about us as individuals in agreement; they were about us as living stones fitted together in the temple of the Holy Spirit, as royal priests, a holy nation.28 We were a cast of millions, maybe trillions. Prayer is not about me, or you; it is about all of us who belong to God.

Not about Us, but about God
But the third, and biggest, thing I didn’t appreciate that night in the janitor’s closet is that prayer ultimately is not even about us but about God. It’s not about the living stones that make up the temple but the Spirit in the temple. Overcoming this third misconception has been the most transforming of all to my prayer life.

Question: Who are the Psalms about? On the surface, they are about a lot of people: David, especially, but also Moses, Asaph, the sons of Korah, Jeduthun and Heman and Ethan and all Israel. Bigger question: Who is the Bible about? On the surface, the list is even longer. But Jesus made it radically short when he said to his opponents, “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!”29

This wasn’t a throwaway line for Jesus, an odd and obscure saying on the periphery of his teachings, something for future generations of scholars to puzzle over. It was right at the center, because he insisted that his whole mission was not to cancel what we know as the Old Testament Scriptures but to fulfill them.30 To fulfill is to fill-full, to complete what was implicit and incomplete in what came before.

So in Luke’s account of the Resurrection, establishing this fulfillment theme was very high on the Lord’s priority list. The Gospel writer tells us that, shortly after stepping out of the tomb, Jesus sought out two disciples walking to the village of Emmaus and explained to them what he meant when he said the “Scriptures point to me.” Luke says Jesus “took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”31 Later he appeared to the apostles and reiterated what he’d said earlier:

“When I was with you before, I told you that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.32

Every Psalm Whispers His Name
Jesus said he fulfilled all the Bible, including the Psalms of the Bible! The apostles grabbed hold of this and ran with it. On the Day of Pentecost, when Peter stood before the crowds in Jerusalem to preach the gospel, he went to one of David’s psalms, Psalm 16, to explain Christ’s resurrection. Peter said,

King David said this about him:

“I see that the Lord is always with me.

I will not be shaken, for he is right beside me.

No wonder my heart is glad,

and my tongue shouts his praises!

My body rests in hope.

For you will not leave my soul among the dead

or allow your Holy One to rot in the grave.

You have shown me the way of life,

and you will fill me with the joy of your presence.”33

Then Peter did something with the psalm that took tremendous chutzpah and would have been absolutely outrageous if the Lord had not given him the authority to do it: He said that David wasn’t really talking about himself; he was talking about Jesus!

Dear brothers, think about this! You can be sure that the patriarch David wasn’t referring to himself, for he died and was buried, and his tomb is still here among us. But he was a prophet, and he knew God had promised with an oath that one of David’s own descendants would sit on his throne. David was looking into the future and speaking of the Messiah’s resurrection. He was saying that God would not leave him among the dead or allow his body to rot in the grave.34

Peter could say this because Jesus had opened the door for him to say it. The church has been going through that door ever since. The writers of the New Testament write with the conviction that every story and psalm of the Old Testament “whispers his name.”35 The Bible is all about Jesus. As Peter explained it on the Day of Pentecost, when you pray the psalms of David as the psalms of Jesus, you pray exactly as David intended! You pray with David’s greater Son. Your voice resonates with a voice deeper than yours or David’s. You pray with Jesus. As Bonhoeffer put it, “If we want to read and pray the prayers of the Bible and especially the Psalms, therefore, we must not ask first what they have to do with us [and, I would add, or David or Israel!], but what they have to do with Jesus Christ.”36

So use your imagination. It helps me to think of it this way: I bow my head and begin to pray a psalm. I sense Someone’s presence, I hear Someone’s voice in my head, speaking as I speak. I look up, and behold! There is Jesus praying beside me. He smiles, and I know without his saying a word that when I began to pray it was not I who got his attention; it was he who got my attention. He didn’t join me in my concerns; I joined him in his. As I prayed his Word, my voice joined his voice. Precious mystery! Divine communion! Sweet intimacy!

There is more. I look at Jesus and see gathered around him his Body—countless multitudes there with me, also joined to him in prayer. Gathered from every tribe and language and nation, our voices are somehow subsumed, incorporated into Christ. Yet the intimacy with Jesus is not diluted! We are not a mass but members of a body. Just as every organ in a body is as directly connected to the head as any other organ—the nose no more connected to the head than the little toe—each of us in Christ’s Body is as close to Jesus as we would be if we were the only one. But—and this is crucial—there would be no intimacy outside the Body.

My wife grew up in a wonderful, loving family—a mom and a dad with six kids, living on the meager salary of a professor at a Christian college. There may not have been enough money, but there was no shortage of love. When they became adults, the brothers and sisters laughed uproariously when they discovered that each thought he or she was the parents’ favorite child! That’s a little bit like the Body of Christ: love and intimacy not in spite of the family but because of the family.

All the members of the Body of Christ are empowered to pray with Jesus, but never alone with Jesus. His brothers and sisters join their voices with his and pray whatever he prays, as family: “So now Jesus and the ones he makes holy have the same Father. That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them his brothers and sisters.”37 If you are in Jesus, you are now permitted to say whatever he says—not in yourself as an individual, but only as a member of Christ’s Body, with everyone else in his Body.

Body and Spirit
This unique relationship of union to Christ in prayer, with others, touches on what is sometimes called the communion of the saints, or the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Blaise Pascal saw with clarity how our love for God, for ourselves, and for each other—and therefore our prayers—are inextricably bound together in the Body (note: Pascal doesn’t capitalize the word Body as I do).

But in loving the body [each member] loves itself, because it has no being except in the body, through the body, and for the body. . . . We love ourselves because we are members of Christ. We love Christ because he is the body of which we are members. All are one. One is in the other like the three persons [of the Trinity].38

Here I must tread cautiously and reverently, for I touch on a mystery that goes far beyond my understanding. But for prayer it is a very practical mystery. The organic union of the Body of Christ is rooted in the loving union of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Together, the “community” of God helps us pray. In fact, we are drawn up into the communion of the Godhead when we pray. Jesus, the Son, teaches us to pray to the Father and intercedes for us as we do.39 The Spirit also helps us to pray, as something of a translator. In our weakness we don’t know what God wants us to pray for.

The Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will.40

How to Pray through This Book
Given the mystery of prayer, you may wonder how this book can help you learn to pray through the Psalms. God’s Prayer Book is a beginner’s guide to learning to pray the Psalms, a “devotional commentary.” My aim is not to tell you what to pray. I want to say just enough about each psalm to stir your heart and imagination to lead you into prayer. So it’s far more devotional than commentary, more workbook than textbook. There are several wonderful commentaries any serious student of the Psalms should acquire. But the guides to prayer in this book say, “Here’s a psalm, here are a few things you should know about it, now use it.” Like a tool—a shovel, a hammer, or a saw—a psalm is best understood by using it, by praying it. Eugene Peterson likes the phrase “owner’s manual”41 for a book like this. I do too. The main idea is to give you enough information and reflection to get you started using the Psalms to teach you to pray.

Each devotional commentary has three parts:

A Psalm Text
This book contains the complete text of 76{verify} psalms that I believe can transform your prayer life. Read through each psalm slowly and thoughtfully two or three times. The psalm will be better than anything I say about it. Take note of any word or phrase that “glimmers”—stands out or gives you pause. The Holy Spirit may use these “glimmerings” to prompt you to pay attention to some specific matter in your personal life.

A Devotional Window
I offer a short devotional perspective on each psalm only as an aid in understanding and an encouragement to pray. But I am no more than a servant of the Word of God, a kind of pastoral docent in an art museum. Its halls are lined with the works of masters, objects of profound wisdom and breathtaking beauty. My job is to point out a thing or two about these great works and then get out of the way so you can look into them more deeply and personally and be taught by the Holy Spirit to pray more like Jesus. Be careful what you look into—the Psalms are mirrors that will look into you and read you more searchingly than you will ever read them.

A Prayer Route
The prayer points listed after each devotional are suggested ways to pray the psalm, routes one may take to pray through it, like climbing a great rock.

My son Andy is an expert rock climber. In May 2007 he climbed El Capitan in the Yosemite Valley, an imposing mass of granite that rises three thousand feet above the valley floor. It’s the kind of climb that normally takes a few days and nights—which means climbers typically anchor themselves in portable “ledges” in which to sleep at night.

One of the fascinating things about any great “wall,” as climbers term the rocks they climb, is that there is usually more than one way to the top. The wall is what it is, and it cannot be altered. It must be respected. There is one wall, and no amount of wishing it to be something other than what it is will make it so. Disaster awaits anyone who climbs wishfully. But within the parameters or boundaries the wall offers, there may be several routes for the climber, strategies one may take to move along the contours of the rock.

Like the God who gave them, the Psalms are like these great rocks. They are what they are, and no amount of wishing them to be otherwise will change that. Any attempt to make a psalm what it is not invites spiritual peril. But there are usually a variety of ways to pray through a psalm, while respecting its integrity. The prayer prompts after each devotional window are my suggested routes. They are based on my own prayers and analysis of the Psalms from dialogue with commentators and others I pray with—particularly my wife and the fine folks who have been praying with me these past four years in the school of prayer at Santa Barbara Community Church. But if you are moved to pray in different directions (see above, “A Psalm Text”), by all means do so.

You probably don’t know that you know one of the main Hebrew words for belief. It’s amen. It means to rest on something, to put your full weight down, to lash yourself to a truth as you would a tent to a stake or a rope to a rock face. Every time you pray a psalm, you anchor your soul to God’s truth the way a climber rests his or her weight on a handhold on El Capitan—Spanish for something like “the Lord.”

One more thing: During Andy’s three-day climb, my wife, Lauretta, and I went on a Web site to follow the route he took to the top. The wall is named the Salathe, and the Web site was loaded with photos of the breathtaking vistas he was enjoying on his climb. The prayer routes are like those photos. They’re vistas I got when I prayed the Psalms. It is my earnest prayer that they will encourage you to take your own photographs—or better, to paint your own pictures.

But this book is still just a beginner’s guide—or perhaps a change of pace for those seasoned in prayer. As you read through each devotional, I invite you to try out some other ways to learn prayer from the Psalms that may serve you over your lifetime. I’ll list five.

1. Say Them Out Loud
Just read the Psalms slowly and thoughtfully, assenting to what they say with as much understanding as you have, intellectually and emotionally. Don’t just read them, pray them; say them from the heart.

Does it strike you as odd that the Word of God, the Bible, should have at its center a prayer book, the Psalms? It’s better than odd; it’s beautiful and mysterious, for the Psalms contain both the Word God has to say to us about prayer and the words he wants us to say to him in prayer. “This is pure grace,” exclaimed Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “that God tells us how we can speak with him and have fellowship with him.”42

2. Festoon Them
Think of a psalm as a Christmas tree. Read it and then festoon it with your own prayers, as you would decorate a tree. Your prayers are answers to what God says to you in the psalm. Or think of its words as a road map—let it show you where to go, and then go there. The psalm is your guideline, the Holy Spirit is your guide, and you are the traveler.43

A simple way to understand a psalm’s intent is to read it through the lens of the “three Rs”: Rejoice, Repent, and Request. Ask these three questions:

Rejoice: What do I find here that gives me cause to rejoice, to give praise and thanks? Then do it.

Repent: What do I read here that brings to light sin in my life? Then confess and repent.

Request: What in this psalm can inform the way I pray for others and myself? Then make your requests of God accordingly.

3. Paraphrase Them
Meditate and study a psalm until you understand it well enough to put it into your own words. Then paraphrase the psalm as you have come to understand it, and pray your paraphrase.

The Living Bible, a paraphrase by Ken Taylor, opened a generation’s eyes to the vitality of the Bible. You don’t have to be as skilled as Ken Taylor to write a paraphrase that helps you pray from the heart what you hear God saying to you in his Word. No one need read or hear what you have written but you and the Lord, who delights in the prayers of his people.

4. Learn Them by Heart
Memorize the Psalms—but not by rote. Rather, learn them by heart; make their words your words. Come to understand them so well you can recite them—by inflection and tone—as though you had written them yourself. This is, by far, the best way I know to learn to pray the Psalms. I can think of no more powerful way to allow the Word of God to change who you are and how you think. Over the years I have been grateful for every line of Scripture I have committed to memory, but the prayers of the Psalms have offered incomparable comfort and clarity in desperate, murky, and confusing situations, when I didn’t have a worthwhile word of my own to say—when I quite literally didn’t have a prayer.

5. Marinate in Them
Some people use the Bible like they use spice to liven up the taste of food—a little Tabasco here, some salt and pepper and oregano there; a favorite verse, a “one size fits all” psalm like Psalm 23 or 103 to read when you are (check one) sad or glad or afraid or lonely or struggling with doubt. Nothing wrong with that, unless that’s the only way you come to Scripture.

But it’s better to use the Psalms as you would a marinade. A spice touches only the surface of the food; a marinade changes its character. Chicken soaked in lemon juice or a steak drenched in garlic and teriyaki sauce isn’t the same thing it was before the treatment. The soul should marinate in Scripture by repeated, thoughtful, slow, comprehensive, and Spirit-enlightened reading. Make it your aim for Scripture to be for you what Charles Spurgeon said it was for John Bunyan: “Prick him anywhere, his blood is bibline.”44

Soak in the Psalms, using any of the methods I’ve suggested above: saying, festooning, paraphrasing, and memorizing. Mature Christians have long known that the best way to learn to pray is to pray through the Psalms systematically, psalm by psalm, day in and day out, week by week and month by month for a lifetime. Liturgical traditions use prayer books with assigned daily readings arranged on a monthly cycle. Anyone can divide them up for monthly (thirty-day) or bimonthly (60-day) cycles; just divide 150 by the number of days. A thirty-day cycle would pray Psalms 1 to 5 on the first day of the month, Psalms 6 to 10 on the second day, and so on. It’s not complicated.

Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of success is just showing up. So it is that 80 percent of learning to pray is just showing up—and doing it. Saint Benedict promised that this steady practice of prayer would eventually cause the mind to “echo in harmony with the voice.”45 Serious prayer is the work of a pilgrim, not the occasional dalliance of a tourist. It comes from what Nietzsche called “a long obedience in the same direction.” Certainly this was what Jesus did. The man who prayed the Psalms so meaningfully on the cross had been drenched in the Psalms from boyhood. As a matter of fact, the first psalm in the Psalter is quite specifically about Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of David.


Anna said...

Sounds like an interesting book. I'll have to keep this one in mind.

Diary of an Eccentric

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