Category Archives: Psalmody

Why we have to learn how to Ruminate!

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When I started blogging several years ago, I chose the title Ruminations. It’s still in the subtitle. It’s not just a graphic term for bovine digestion. It was adopted early in the church as a metaphor for the essential discipline of meditation. It means internalizing and assimilating the truth of God (specifically from Holy Scripture) into our spiritual bloodstreams. It runs counter to our frenzied culture but it’s the only way we flourish and mature in Christ-likeness! You can listen to the sermon here and I’ll include more below on the WHY and HOW of biblical meditation.

What is Biblical Meditation and why is it so important?

::  It has a vocal component: “to talk; mutter; whisper; muse; ponder; moan; sigh. It’s talking with God about His Word and your life.

::  It’s getting God’s truth from the ‘head’ to the ‘heart.’

::  It’s “the sister of reading, the nurse of prayer, and the guide of action;”  “the beginning of all good!”

::  It’s internalization God’s Word so as to transform our way of life. It’s not about emptying the mind as in some religions and spiritualities. Biblical meditation opens us to the “mind of Christ” and to God’s presence in the world.

::  It’s listening to God; giving attention (someone has said, “Inattention is the greatest obstacle to the life of faith!”)

::  It’s tuning into God with all the “antennae of the soul” (mind, emotions, imagination, and will.)

::  It’s spiritual digestion – or rumination! “Words and truths of God “eaten, chewed, received in unhurried delight” (Eugene Peterson)

So HOW do we Practice Meditation? Some suggestions:

Choose a verse, chapter, or story in the Bible – perhaps from your overall reading or a sermon or Bible Study. (You can also meditate on an attribute of God, like God’s justice; or a name of Christ, like the Good Shepherd or the Bread of Life)

1. “a.e.i.o.u.” is a way of “chewing” on the passage you are reflecting on. The vowels stand for:
Ask questions (Kipling’s “6 honest serving men” who taught him all he knew: What and Why and When; and How and Where and Who!)
Emphasize different words
In your own words, or paraphrasing
Other verses that relate and inform
Use, i.e. “Lord, how do you want me to apply this truth?”

2. Martin Luther taught a simple and practical way to meditate and pray:
Luther took for example, The Lord’s Prayer and using each petition, he wove “a garland of four twisted strands. That is, I take each (petition) first as a teaching, which is what it actually is, and I reflect upon what our Lord God so earnestly requires of me here. Secondly, I make out of it a reason for thanksgiving. Thirdly, a confession and fourthly, a prayer petition.” You can read more about his practice here from a past blogpost.

However you and I come to “ingest” the Word of God, let our prayer be with the hymn writer: “Beyond the sacred page – I seek YOU Lord!” *

Let’s be people who Ruminate on God and His truth!

(*from “Break Now the Bread of Life” – Covenant Hymnal, A. Groves, alt.)

Psalm 119 ~ Bonhoeffer’s Unfinished Book

DietrichBonhoefferWorksVol15I have three of the 17 volumes of Bonhoeffer’s Complete annotated works translated from the German over a 20 year span. They include background notes from scholars and often fascinating detail from the margin of his Bibles, letters previously unpublished, etc. One gem in Vol. 15 is the notes he began on each verse of Psalm 119 – an acrostic poem of 22 stanzas of 8 verses each.  Every verse has different and “new variations on one theme, the love of God’s word.”

We have learned that “in the winter of 1939-40, Bonhoeffer intensified his long-practiced meditation on the Psalms and considered an interpretation on Ps. 119 ‘the climax of his theological life.'” His closest friend, Bethge noted that this Psalm was ‘the biblical passage quoted most frequently by Bonhoeffer.’ In his American diary, Bonhoeffer called it his favorite Psalm. He saw this project as central to biblical ethics.

We have notes on only 21 verses of Bonhoeffer’s Psalm 119 meditations. One reflection has been a constant reminder to me about “delighting” in God’s Word.

God gave us the Scriptures to be read and pondered anew every day…
Why do I forget God’s word? Because I cannot yet say as the Psalm says:
“I delight in your statutes.”

I do not forget the things in which I delight!
(Works, Vol. 15, pp. 517-18)

10 times in this great Psalm of the Word – the word DELIGHT is used to describe the Psalmist’s response to the revealed Teaching of God. Two more:

In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. (v.14)
If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction. (v.92)

A suggested practice:
As a way of increasing your delight in the Word, read and meditate on this Psalm. We are reading 2 stanzas per week in worship currently. You may want to take a month and read one 8 verse stanza each week day.

“O how I love your law; it is my meditation all the day!” (Psalm 119:97)

How to Pray with the Psalms

Screen Shot 2014-08-05 at 10.28.15 PMOur series on prayer comes to the essential place of the PSALMS in prayer. The sermon from August 3rd gives reasons and practical ways to “pray with the Psalms,” especially when we are in pain or when God seems far away!  The diagram here is from that teaching.

You can also download a short anthology of some wonderful quotes about the Psalms at the Psalm Page of this blog.

On vacation this week, I came across a used book store. (“I brake for bookstores.”) I stumbled upon these two additional reasons for praying the Psalms from Thomas Merton.

That is why I am more and more thankful… for the Psalms. Their praise of God is perfect, and God gives it to me to utter as more my own than any language I could think up for myself.    (from ‘A Year with Thomas Merton’)

This is the secret of the psalms. Our identity is hidden in them. In them we find ourselves and God. In these fragments he has revealed not only Himself to us but ourselves to Him.  (from ‘The Journals of Thomas Merton 2’)

So if this practice  is new to you, let me encourage you to listen to the teaching and then begin – just begin reading the Psalms – each day – and let them become your own prayers – Jesus’ prayers with you – teaching you how to pray!

Soul Medicine – Prescriptions from the Psalms

RX 2This week I re-read the 4th century letter of Athanasius of Alexandria written to a man named Marcellinus on the importance and use of the Psalms. It is often available as part of the his famous work, On the Incarnation. It should be in every Christian’s library.  The edition I have has an introduction by C.S. Lewis that is also classic. [The Kindle edition is on Amazon for $.99 !]

A good part of the letter is given to detailed “prescriptions” – Psalms to read in every situation. I’ve listed them out here. I look forward to taking more time to read the Psalms in this way to supplement my monthly reading of the Psalms. The entire letter is wonderful and can be accessed on-line.

in the Psalter… you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries.

Let whoever reads this Book of Psalms take the things in it quite simply as God-inspired; and let each select from it, as from the fruits of a garden, those things of which he sees himself in need.

He also recommends chanting or simply singing the Psalms as the way to “unify” the head and heart and body. For the most part, I chose not to change or paraphrase the writing.

Here is the list of 80+ Prescriptions for most every situation!

[NOTE: use the numbers in parentheses – the traditional Hebrew numbering in our English Bibles.
The first number listed is from the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, read in the early church. ]

1. Suppose, then, for example, that 
you want to declare any one to be blessed; you find the way to do it in Psalm 1, and likewise in 31 (32), 40 (41), 111 (112), 118 (119), and 127 (128).

2. If you want to rebuke the conspiracy…against the Saviour, you have Psalm 2.

3. If you are persecuted by your own family and opposed by many, say Psalm 3;

4. and when you would give thanks to God at your affliction’s end, sing 4 and 74 (75) and 114-115 (116).

5. When you see the wicked wanting to ensnare you and you wish your prayer to reach God’s ears, then wake up early and sing 5;

6. and if you feel yourself beneath the cloud of His displeasure, you can say 6 and 37 (38).

7. If any plot against you, as did Ahithophel against David, and someone tells you of it, sing Psalm 7, and put your trust in God Who will deliver you.

8. Contemplating humanity’s redemption and the Saviour’s universal grace, sing Psalm 8 to the Lord; and with this same Psalm or the 18th (19th) you may thank Him for the vintage.

9. For victory over the enemy and the saving of created things, take not glory to yourself but, knowing that it is the Son of God Who has thus brought things to a happy issue, say to Him Psalm 9; and, if any wishes to alarm you, the 10th (11th), still trusting in the Lord.

10. When you see the boundless pride of many, and evil passing great, so that among men [so it seems] no holy thing remains, take refuge with the Lord and say Psalm 11 (12).

11. And if this state of things be long drawn out, be not faint-hearted, as though God had forgotten you, but call upon Him with Psalm 26 (27). Continue reading Soul Medicine – Prescriptions from the Psalms

Poetry Monday – Lament and Peace

A Psalm and a poem by Wendell Berry in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy.

from Psalm 5 (NIV)

Listen to my words, Lord, consider my lament.
Hear my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray.
In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;
in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.
For you are not a God who is pleased with wickedness;
with you, evil people are not welcome.
The arrogant cannot stand in your presence.
You hate all who do wrong; you destroy those who tell lies.
The bloodthirsty and deceitful you, Lord , detest.

But I, by your great love, can come into your house;
in reverence I bow down toward your holy temple.
Lead me,  Lord , in your righteousness because of my enemies—
make your way straight before me.

But let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy.
Spread your protection over them,
that those who love your name may rejoice in you.
Surely,  Lord , you bless the righteous;
you surround them with your favor as with a shield. (Psalm 5:1-12 NIV)

The Peace of Wild Things, Wendell Berry

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

NOTE: A Boston band, Crooked Still, put this poem to music that you can listen to here.

Psalmody, part 8 – Tell me how you really feel!

In the Biblical Thought class that I teach at URI, I give an assignment after covering the Psalms and Wisdom books of the Old Testament. I ask each student to write a “psalm.” It can be a prayer, a poem, a rant, or a first person paraphrase of a biblical Psalm.  I want them to experience some of the honesty expressed by the writers of the Psalms – “right in front of God!” To help them grasp the personal nature of the Word of God.

Here is a poem – I understand later put to music – written by one of my students, Seth.  He is a bio-medical engineering major and it reflects his response to the question of how science and faith are compatible.

God is in the Science

From the orbit of the farthest planets
To the workings of the smallest cell
God is there.

In the burning power of the stars;
In the soft, fragrant heat of a candle;
God is there.

The roar of the lion, the rumble of the earth;
The trill of a flute, the rustle of the leaves;
God is there.

In the force of a collision,
In the softness of a kiss,
Is He not there?

For surely He has planned their workings;
The Lord God has devised their mechanisms.
For all we know, everything mankind has discovered,
All things were set in place by Him.

Yes, even the thoughts of man, traveling through his brain,
And how he walks, and sits, and speaks;
The whole of Creation, in its vastness and diversity;
These too were crafted by God.

So give Him praise, wise men!
Sing to God, collectors of knowledge!
For from Him is all you have learned,
And from His words did your learning come forth.

The library of His knowledge is infinite;
None have catalogued the wisdom of the Lord.
So let us praise Him;
Let us praise the Lord till His archive is full!

__ Seth Crino (used by permission)

Psalmody, part 7 – The Psalms: good psychologists!

I’m defining Psalmody as  “the continuous and systematic praying or singing of the Psalms.” (see all the Psalmody posts)

Kathleen Norris on the mental health of praying the Psalms:

In expressing all the complexities and contradictions of human experience, the Psalms act as good psychologists. (Another writer said that the Psalms touch such a range of human experience that you’ll think they have been written by your therapist!) They defeat our tendency to try to be holy without being human first!

Here are some examples:

Continue reading Psalmody, part 7 – The Psalms: good psychologists!

Psalmody, part 6 – Prayerbook of the Bible

Continuing the series on Psalmody, “the continuous and systematic praying or singing of the Psalms.” (see all the Psalmody posts here)

Time for Dietrich Bonhoeffer to weigh in – from his wonderful book, Psalms, Prayerbook of the Bible.  You can get this in an inexpensive edition, but if you can swing it, pay a bit more and get the new Complete Works annotated edition that also contains another classic, Life Together.

Bonhoeffer desired to retrieve the Psalms as the prayerbook of Jesus.  He interpreted the Psalms as did Luther – seeing Christ in them; speaking in them, as well as being the source of His own prayers.

He saw (praying the Psalms) as side by side, with the Lord’s Prayer; Jesus’ answer to the plea of the Disciples, “Teach us to pray!”  The Lord’s Prayer can be seen as the lens through which we read the Psalms.  We pray with Jesus in the Psalms.

“Wherever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian Church. With its recovery will come unsuspected power.”

Praying certainly does not mean simply pouring out one’s heart.  It means, rather, finding the way to and speaking with God, whether the heart is full or empty.  No one can do that on one’s own.  For that we need Jesus Christ.

We learn to pray like a child learns to speak – saying the parent’s words after them. So prayer is answering God. Reading the Psalms in worship services, (something he learned in the Benedictine Monastery experience in England) and having systematic ways of reading the Psalms, are a profound help in forming an independent relationship with God and with God’s Word.

(One example of Bonhoeffer’s personal prayer with the Psalms is a journal entry from his ocean crossing from America to involve himself in wartime Germany. He sights a devotional he used: “Daily Text: ‘It is good for me that I was humbled, so that I might learn your statures'” [Ps. 119:71]. This was a source of strength as he faced a perilous future. He was working on an exposition of Psalm 119 (his “favorite Psalm”) that was never completed.  (This note is from Vol. 15 of the Complete Works, Theological Education Underground.)

Question: Are you using God’s own words in prayer?

Psalmody, part 5 – You want to read this letter!

In the last post, I mentioned that Athanasius of Alexandria, in addition to On the Incarnation, wrote a letter to Marcellinus On the Interpretation of the Psalms. Read the whole letter here.  Here’s a favorite quote from the letter you’ll want to read!

Among all the books, the Psalter has certainly a very special grace, a choiceness of quality well worthy to be pondered; for, besides the characteristics which it shares with others, it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. In the Psalter, you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill.

In the Psalms that we find written and described how afflictions should be borne, and what the afflicted ought to say, both at the time and when his troubles cease: the whole process of his testing is set forth in them and we are shown exactly with what words to voice our hope in God. Or take the commandment, “In everything give thanks.” The Psalms not only exhort us to be thankful, they also provide us with fitting words to say. We are told, too, by other writers that all who would live godly in Christ must suffer persecution; and here again the Psalms supply words with which both those who flee persecution and those who suffer under it may suitably address themselves to God, and it does the same for those who have been rescued from it…In fact, under all the circumstances of life, we shall find that these divine songs suit ourselves and meet our own souls’ need at every turn.

Psalmody, part 4 – ‘Honest to God!’

Christian counselor and author Larry Crabb has said that in dealing with our emotions, we must “be honest with ourselves and with God, subordinating the expression of our emotions to the will of God.” The Psalms help us greatly with the honesty part. Here is one of my all time favorite quotes about the importance of daily reading and praying the Psalms, from Kathleen Norris:

You come to the Bible’s great “book of praises” through all the moods and conditions of life, and while you may feel like the pits, you sing anyway. To your surprise, you find that the Psalms do not deny your true feelings but allow you to reflect on them, right in front of God and everyone.

They remind us that the mundane and the holy are linked. The Psalms make us uncomfortable because they don’t let us deny – either the depth of our pain or the possibility of its transformation into praise. We commit ourselves to being changed by the Psalms, allowing the words to work on us, and sometimes to work us over. The Psalms are unrelenting in their realism. They ask us to consider our true situation and to pray over it. They ask us to be honest about ourselves.

From Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris