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Creative prayer: The Psalms and music

Thursday August 15 2019

Creative prayer: The Psalms and music

The Psalms have often been called the prayer book of the Bible. They help us pray even when we don’t feel like it, and they teach us to pray in new ways. They bring us into God’s presence in whatever mood we’re feeling. They are honest, vivid and sometimes raw.

I wrote last week about my friend Steve Simon’s wonderful book, Holy Walks. (I’m linking to the book on amazon. For my overseas readers, it’s also available at the Book Depository with much cheaper postage.) In the book, Steve describes the way he memorizes psalms as he walks his dog and then prays the psalms he has memorized.

I want to suggest that music can be a wonderful accompaniment to praying the psalms. While walking, sometimes I sing a psalm or hymn based on a psalm – aloud or in my head. I also listen to musical versions of the psalms in my car, and I sing them in my head at night when trying to get to sleep.

I have three suggestions for music to accompany praying the psalms.

1. An Australian band, the Sons of Korah, who sing the psalms word for word. I have all their CDs and have listened to them in the car so much that I find myself singing the words to various psalms using their tunes.

The leader of the band, Matthew Jacoby, has a PhD in philosophy and theology, and has written a book, Deeper Places: Experiencing God in the Psalms.

My favorite Sons of Korah song is Psalm 93, “The Seas have Lifted Up.” On YouTube, you can listen to their recording of the song here, or watch them playing a longer version in concert here.

Some of my other favorite Sons of Korah songs are Psalm 17, Psalm 51, Psalm 91, and Psalm 99. You can find many others on YouTube. Check out their website for more information.

2. Hymns that are paraphrases of psalms. The well-known hymn, “Praise My Soul the King of Heaven,” is a paraphrase of Psalm 103. There’s an additional verse of the hymn that is left out of almost every hymnbook, which summarizes verses 15 to 19 of the psalm and should be the fourth verse, before the verse about angels. I think it’s crazy to skip this verse, because the flow of the psalm is interrupted. Besides, I love the imagery of the flower flourishing, then it is gone.

Frail as summer's flower we flourish,
Blows the wind and it is gone;
But while mortals rise and perish
God endures unchanging on,
Praise Him, praise Him,
Praise Him, praise Him,
Praise the High Eternal One!

Another wonderful hymn is the “The Spacious Firmament on High,” which paraphrases Psalm 19:1-4. I love the concluding line: “The hand that made us is divine.” I always want to shout those words!

Some hymnbooks are explicit about which hymns are connected to psalms.

3. Praise songs that paraphrase psalms or sing them word for word. I looked around on YouTube, searching for some of my favorite psalms, and I found a wide variety. Here’s a version of Psalm 139 that illustrates a common pattern: some of the words are directly from the psalm, some are paraphrased, and some are added. For Psalm 23, here’s a version that uses the words of the psalm without changing them or adding to them. If you do a search for some of your favorite psalms, you’ll find an astonishing – and fun – array of musical styles.

Music helps us remember words, so that alone is enough reason to seek out musical versions of the psalms. Music also captures so many moods, and since the Psalms express so many different emotions, it’s interesting and sometimes enlightening to see which mood musicians choose to express when they write tunes to the words of psalms. And for many Christians, music is a heart language for prayer. Why not sing the Psalms when we draw near to God?

Next week: creative prayer using color. Illustration is the cover to Holy Walks: Learning and Praying the Psalms (available from amazon and also the Book Depository, with cheaper overseas postage), which I highly recommend. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” below (for cellphones) or in the right hand column (for laptops).  

Some previous posts on the Psalms:

Creative prayer: Walking and memorizing psalms

Thursday August 8 2019

Creative prayer: Walking and memorizing psalms

I am so pleased that my good friend Steve Simon has written a book about the prayer practice that took his faith from his head to his heart. Steve memorizes psalms as he walks his dog, and then he prays those psalms. Holy Walks: Learning and Praying the Psalms is practical, humorous, and so helpful. He asked me to write the foreword, and here’s what I wrote.

Foreword for Holy Walks: Learning and Praying the Psalms. By Lynne Baab.

When I read a psalm—or listen to a sung version of a psalm—I am invited into something amazing and wonderful. The Psalms encourage me to approach God just as I am, with my messy emotions and disordered thoughts. The psalm writers model an extreme honesty before God that lightens my heart. I see that I, too, can be honest, that God welcomes my anger, frustration, sadness, and pain. Whatever has caused these emotions, however much I blame myself for feeling these things, God says, “Come.”

When I stay in a psalm, something else happens, equally wonderful and freeing. In almost every psalm, God turns negative emotions into praise, thankfulness, joy and singing. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5, NRSV). For me, the period of weeping is often much shorter than a night because the psalm writers’ words lighten my heart as I pray along with them.

Steve Simon knows this. In Holy Walks, Steve describes the ways he has grown in becoming a person who loves God with his heart, not just his mind. Steve is one of the smartest people I know, and it has been a delight to the see the ways the Psalms have taken Steve’s faith from his mind into his whole being.

Steve’s fine mind is visible in Holy Walks, as he explains the variety of types of psalms, how psalms are structured, and how the language of the psalms works. But even more valuable is Steve’s description of the specific habits that enabled him to engage with the psalms:  memorizing specific psalms, pondering them, and praying them—while he walks his dog.

Memorizing passages in the Bible has been a key practice for me. The passages I know by heart have shaped me deeply. They have given me fodder for thought and prayer. They have helped me draw near to God. Countless other Christians throughout the ages have benefitted from memorizing portions of the Bible, and each person who wants to memorize scriptural passages has to come up with a system for doing it.

Steve provides helpful specifics for how he memorizes psalms. His method may well be beneficial for many readers.

The walking component of Steve’s engagement with the Psalms is also significant. Christians have long underemphasized the significance of the body, and I am thrilled that in recent years Christians have begun to rediscover spiritual practices based in the body, including fasting, pilgrimage, walking a labyrinth, and the stations of the cross. Friends increasingly tell me they are finding joy in a variety of bodily positions while praying. The rhythm of my feet hitting the pavement has always enabled prayer to flow easily for me, and I love Steve’s combination of walking while memorizing, pondering and praying the Psalms.

The strong presence of Emma, Steve’s beloved dog, adds lightness and humor to Holy Walks. The dog, the varied weather, the early morning air—Steve has grounded his book beautifully in the physical world made by God, the Creation mentioned so frequently and so tenderly in the Psalms.

Steve calls the Psalms a “remedy for lifeless prayer.” Amen to that! As I pray along with the psalm writers, I get to experience such a range of prayer forms and moods. In times of trouble, the Psalms help me experience God restoring my peace and joy. And as I pray outside in nature, I experience something wonderful about God’s creativity in our beautiful world.

Because the Psalms, scripture memory, and praying while walking have been such important aspects of my faith journey, I can enthusiastically tell you that if you adopt some or all of Steve’s method as he describes it in Holy Walks, you will grow in intimacy with God.

(For my readers in New Zealand, Holy Walks is available at the Book Depository, where the postage is cheaper than ordering it from amazon.)

Next week: the gift of music when praying the Psalms. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” below (for cellphones) or in the right hand column (for laptops).

Some other posts about praying and walking:

Creative prayer: Seasons

Friday May 17 2019

Creative prayer: Seasons

On Valentine’s Day when I was 41, I woke up unable to get my breath. I’d had the flu for a few days, but this breathlessness was something different. Dave took me to the Emergency Room where they tested my blood oxygen level (very low) and gave me a referral to a lung specialist. I walked out with a cute little oxygen tank and a bigger oxygen tank for refilling the little guy.

It took six weeks to get a diagnosis (hypersensitivity pneumonitis) and a drug to heal it (high doses of prednisone). Meanwhile one of my closest friends was dying of a brain tumor. Maggie died when I was about a month into the prednisone, and I went to her heart-breaking funeral carrying my little oxygen tank.

After two months on prednisone, I was healed, and they started the process of getting me off the drug. I felt awful during the two months of steadily reducing doses. I felt awful for the first two months after I was off the drug. Then I had to begin the long process of getting some level of fitness back. Another Valentine’s Day had come and gone before I felt good again.

During the weeks when I was waiting for a diagnosis, I found that the only part of the Bible I could read was the psalms. During the months on prednisone and the months of withdrawal from it, I found I could read only Psalm 90. I read the psalm over and over, praying the words. For the better part of a year, I’m not sure I prayed much else besides the words of that psalm.

I still don’t know why, of all the characteristics of God in the Bible, the words of verse 1 meant so much to me: “Lord, you have been our dwelling-place in all generations.” I can see the appeal of verse 2 for someone who is ill:

Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God. (Psalm 90:2)

And I see the appeal of verses 3 to 6 for someone whose close friend has just died:

You turn us back to dust,
and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” 
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night. 
You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning; 
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers. (Psalm 90:3-6)

In her wonderful new book, The Gift of Wonder, Christine Sine compares the rhythms of our life to the seasons of nature. She talks about the habits we can develop in the seasons of good weather that will take us through the dark and cold.  

I’m glad I had a habit of Bible study and prayer before Maggie died and before I got sick. I still find it absolutely fascinating that in a hard season, my Bible reading and prayer narrowed, first to the book of Psalms, and then to only one Psalm. I still have a deep connection with Psalm 90, which kept me spiritually alive in those long months of feeling awful and grieving a loss that I still feel.

As I look back on that experience, I resonate with a poem Christine Sine wrote and placed in her chapter on seasons:

God prepare us for the winters of our lives.
May we not forget
that hidden within winter’s dark embrace
are the seeds of life.
Remind us, loving God, that when all seems dark and empty,
you are still at work,
strengthening our roots,
healing our wounds
anchoring our souls. [1]

May God give you peace in all the seasons of your life. May God enable you to prepare in the good times for the dark months of winter.

(Next week: the balance between entreating God for what we want versus prayer as submission and relinquishment. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column on laptops or below on cellphones.)

Some previous posts on the Psalms:

Listening to God in Prayer: Praying the Psalms         
Drawing near to God with the heart: Praying the Psalms          
Drawing near to God with the heart: All will be well            
An AHA moment on Mother’s Day           

[1] Christine Aroney-Sine, The Gift of Wonder: Creative Practices for Delighting in God (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019, 114.  

An AHA moment on Mother’s Day

Saturday May 12 2018

An AHA moment on Mother’s Day

The setting: a worship service on Mother’s Day

The AHA moment: the prayer that gave permission for people to struggle on that day

About 20 years ago on Mother’s Day, my good friend and colleague was leading the prayer time in the worship service. Over the years, I had sat through many prayers on Mother’s Day that expressed thanks to God for mothers, a good thing to do.

This was the first time I heard a prayer that expressed those appropriate thanks to God, but also acknowledged that Mother’s Day is hard for some people. My friend mentioned couples who struggle with infertility or had lost a child, women who were single and wished to be married and have children, and those who had difficult relationships with their own mothers or their children.

It truly was an AHA moment for me. For various reasons I had never liked Mother’s Day very much, and here was someone naming some of my ambivalence and struggle. Her words conveyed such freedom and acceptance to me.

Right now I’m teaching an online class for Hope International University on leading communal spiritual practices. In some of our online discussion we have talked about the fact that all leaders of communal spiritual practices need to lay out the goal and structure of various practices with optimism for the great experience spiritual practices offer. However, at the same time, leaders need to affirm that people come into those practices with diverse feelings, and they will have different experiences as they engage in the practices as well.

As leaders in any setting, we have to make room for people to talk about, pray about, and think about their gratitude for the great blessings they experience, as well as the sadness, sense of loss, and unfulfilled longings they experience. Both are real. Both sets of feelings can and should be brought into God’s presence.

With respect to motherhood, I suspect most mothers have at least some mixed feelings, no matter how much they appreciate the gift of children. In the previous paragraph, I mentioned feelings of great blessing, sadness, sense of loss, and unfulfilled longings. I suspect that most mothers experience all of those at various times when they think about their children. I know I did when my children were still living at home. Sometimes I still do.

Many people have experienced great blessing, sadness, sense of loss, and unfulfilled longings related to their relationship (or lack thereof) with their own mother.

What does it look like in Christian spirituality to praise God for the good gifts we experience and also allow honest expression of the thoughts and emotions we consider to be negative? What does it look like to encourage thankfulness and praise, while also giving people permission to pray and talk about the struggles?

And what does it look like for someone who loves Mother’s Day to make room for those who experience the day as a mixed blessing? And vice versa?

The Psalms provide a powerful model for the movement between thanks, praise, sadness, anger, loss, and lament. I’ve been praying the Psalms for many years, and the variety of emotions in the Psalms has helped me bring my own mixed and complex emotions into God’s presence so many times.

But what about those emotions expressed in the Psalms that we’re not feeling? Someone once told me that whenever we come across an emotion in a psalm that we’re not feeling, we can pray that verse on behalf of the people around the world who are having that experience.

I wonder if we could adopt that strategy on Mother’s Day. In prayer, we can express our own emotions about the day, but we can also enter into the feelings of those who experience the day differently. The Psalms model God’s welcome of everything we feel, as well as God’s compassion for those whose experience is different from ours.

(Next week: Let’s thank the Holy Spirit. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

One year ago on this blog: the blog post series that got more comments on the blog and on Facebook than any other series I've written. It focuses on the spiritual practice, new to me at that time, of separating thoughts from feelings. That spiritual practice is still hugely important to me. The first post is here, and you can click "next" at the end of the post to get to the next one. The series has five posts.

Listening to God in Prayer: Praying the Psalms

Thursday February 1 2018

Listening to God in Prayer: Praying the Psalms

For me, praying the psalms over more than three decades has been a tremendous blessing. Psalms show me I can bring varied emotions to God. Psalms give me words to express things I feel about my life and about God. They expand my vocabulary as I praise God. They help me relax into the presence of the God who made the universe, redeemed humans from sin, and loves us through and through.

You might wonder why would I include a post about praying the psalms in a series about prayer as listening to God. In what ways does praying the psalms help us listen to God?

1. Emotions. Because the psalms model such a vast array of emotions that people bring to God, they speak to us about God’s acceptance of us just the way we are, no matter what we’re feeling. They tell us that no emotion is too ugly to bring into God’s presence in prayer. Many of us feel so much shame about the way we’re made and the way we act. The psalms reassure us of God’s acceptance of us just the way we are. Nothing about who we are needs to be hidden from God.

2. Praise and thanks. Because the psalms model a variety of ways to praise and thank God, they teach us to offer praise and thanks to God. It’s almost as if God, through the psalms, instructs us about how to offer praise and thanks to God.

Over the course of my marriage, I have sometimes given my husband pretty direct hints about how to love me. I might say, “It would mean so much to me if you could tell me some of the things you think I am doing well in this situation.” Or, “I need some positive feedback about how I look because I dressed up carefully for the event we’re going to, and I’m feeling insecure.”

In the same way, the psalms give us instruction from God about how to love God. And as we praise and thank God, showing our love, we open our eyes to more of God’s gifts to us.

3. Resting in God’s presence. Because the psalms are so accepting of human emotion, they help us enter into God’s presence and abide there. If we want to hear God speak, being in God’s presence makes it more likely we will hear that still small voice.

Many of these benefits come from memorizing or reading psalms. I have experienced that praying them makes the benefits more intense because I offer all I am and all I have to God, I praise and thank God more intensely, and I sense that I am in God’s presence more readily.

Praying the psalms slows us down, which enables us to listen better. In our fast paced world, anything that slows us down is a powerful gift.

If you’d like to read more praying the psalms, and try some new ways to pray the psalms, one year ago I wrote about how to pray the psalms. You can check it out here.

This is the 12th post in a series on growing in listening to God in prayer. The previous posts are:

Listening to God in prayer        
My journey         
Alone or with others         
Breath prayer         
Distractions in silent prayer        
Noticing God’s presence         
Looking back at 2017         
A new approach to the Bible         
Key questions about listening to God         
Lectio Divina: A pattern for letting God speak through scripture          
Imagining yourself in a Bible story           

(Next week: One man's story about learning to listen to God in prayer. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “Subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Lent begins on Valentine’s Day. If you’d like a devotional for Lent, check out the one I wrote a couple of years ago with reflection questions on a psalm for each day of Lent. I've had good feedback from people who have used it on their own and also from others who used it in a small group. My husband Dave’s beautiful paintings provide illustrations for it. Available here.

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