Friday, May 6, 2016

Praying the Psalms. . .

Long before the cannon shot of the Reformation sounded forth or Luther began to form the fighting words that would challenge popes, councils, and teaching magisteriums, Luther was busy learning Hebrew and teaching the Psalms.  At the heart of the work of the early Luther were not the instructive texts of Paul with regard to the justification of the sinner before God but the Psalms. After receiving his doctorate in theology in 1512, Luther began his university career with lectures on the Bible based upon the Latin text of the Psalter. Hebrew had, apparently, not been part of Luther's curriculum either undergrad or graduate so he taught himself the biblical tongue using Johannes Reuchlin’s On the Rudiments of Hebrew. Long before Erasmus published the first Greek New Testament, the Hebrew Bible had been in print for decades.  Though Luther’s translation of the Tanakh from Hebrew into High German would wait until 1534 to be completed, he had already published Der Psalter Deutsch, his first edition of the complete psalter a decade before.

For Luther, the Psalms “are not words to read, but to live.” Luther's prayer life as monk and priest were rooted in the Psalms.  It was his hope and desire that every Christian would take to heart the Psalter as he had done -- memorizing them, pondering their meaning, and praying them. “In short, if you would see the holy Christian church pictured in living color and form, as in a small portrait, pick up the Psalter,” so said Pastor Luther. More than four centuries later, Dietrich Bonhoeffer would comment: "When the Psalter is abandoned, a great treasure is lost to the Christian Church; with its recovery comes hidden power..."

As I have often said, the best prayerbook for most folks is probably not a breviary or other form of devotion (ancient or modern) but the Psalter.  It is the richest fabric for forming piety, teaching our hearts to pray, and learning to trust with all our heart, soul, body, and mind the good and gracious will of God.  Once does not need to develop an elaborate format.  The Psalter is already well distributed throughout the Church Year in the Psalm of the Day and the Introits for each Sunday.  There are abundant patterns to help you pray the Psalms once a day or more throughout the calendar year.  It is my experience that this is the best way to begin a discipline of daily prayer -- to read the Psalm, ponder its meaning, and then pray it back to the Lord.

I have been given several editions of the Psalms, including the Concordia Psalter (complete with tones), and I have a copy or two done in more elaborate calligraphy.  There are abundant choices (including a newer ESV edition of the Psalms alone which I reviewed on this blog sometime ago).  If you are having problems praying and know that you should be praying more, try the pattern of reading a Psalm each day, reflecting upon its words, and then praying that Psalm as your daily prayer.  I think it is a most eloquent and yet practical beginning or end of each day.  If you like, sing the Psalm.  Tones and settings are provided in abundance to assist you in this.  All the prayer offices of the day are in essence extended treatments of the Psalms.

In pastoral settings when facing the troubles and trials of this mortal life with one who feels the sting more deeply than usual, I find the Psalms my ready pastoral care resource.  When I was faced with a request to pray at a remembrance of someone who took her own life, I reflected upon the rather tormented life of this woman and was drawn to Psalm 130 and to its author's own experience with the depths of despair and loneliness and the God who gives forgiveness to the fallen, who teaches us to wait without fear, who redeems the lost from their affliction and restores the broken.  Its repeated call to wait upon the Lord is not resignation to the evils we deplore but our awareness that God found not only on the mountain tops but in the valleys.

If you struggle to pray, start with the Psalms.  You may find that this is not only a beginning but a home which will form you in the faith as the Psalter has for many generations before you.


Chris said...

There is already an established order for praying the psalms according to the Western Rite. I wonder why, when I was Lutheran, I was never told about this. I was always told to pray, but I didn't know how and my pastors were frankly useless in helping me in this endeavor. It wasn't until I became Orthodox that I realized that there was an order for praying the psalter. in the Orthodox tradition, the psalter is divided into 20 kathismata said or sung during the week at Vespers and Orthros so that the entire psalter was read in one week. During Lent, the psalter is also spread out for the hours so that the psalter is said in its entirety twice every week. The Western Rite order has psalms ordered for the calendar day, some in the morning some in the evening so that the entire psalter is sung or said in a month. Again, I never heard about this before I became orthodox. It is a darn shame that Lutherans really have only started producing prayer books and rules of prayer that have otherwise been forgotten or ignored.

Kirk Skeptic said...

It is sad that only the Scots Presbyterian churches seem to have any sense of the primacy of the Psalter in both corporate and family worship. Our new Psalter fits liturgical worship well but, if one is not familiar with chanting, is much more difficult to use in family worship than, say, the 1650 Psalms of David in Metre or the Genevan Psalter. I'm sur we could do better, but won't hold my breath.

John Joseph Flanagan said...

I love the Psalms. Such a comfort. I prefer the KJV or the NKJV mainly.

--helen said...

Lutheran Worship has the Bible and Psalms divided so that you can read a Psalm and several chapters and you will go through the whole Bible in a year and the Psalms twice.