Reflections by Jerry Webber

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Discovering What Lies beneath the Prayer

For over 25 years I have prayed psalms as a part of my regular practice. I started when a mentor said the biblical Psalms were the prayerbook of the Bible, suggesting that Jesus prayed the Psalms. At first I prayed them methodically, with a rigid "must-do" mentality. I had to do that, otherwise I would have quickly given up. Yes, I found them full of violence, hatred, and "us-versus-them" dualism, but honestly, in those early days I had identified many perceived "enemies" to my own vision for life, so I was able to offer God my psalm-based prayers of vengeance and venom aimed toward those who were my persecutors. If I'm to be completely honest, the psalms I prayed literally in those days gave expression to much of what my life felt like at the time.

Still, there came a time in my own spiritual journeying when the psalms began to be more difficult to pray . . . when I realized that my enemies were not nearly as external (out there) as they were internal (in here) within my own life. I began to imagine what these awkward prayers might sound like if prayed with a different consciousness. These musings prompted me to begin jotting down my own prayers, based on the biblical Psalms, but standing in a bit different place.

I think -- no, I know -- theologians would have massive issues with what I began to do. A couple of them have written about the sanctity of these prayers, coming as they do from the Hebrew people as an expression of their experience of God, life, and neighbors in a very particular context. These persons would say, I believe, that no one has a right to tamper with the experience of this people of God. For all the hatred and enmity expressed in the psalms, these scholars would say that most importantly, the Psalms exist as prayer. That is, they take hatred and impulses to violence directly to God in honesty. The people present how they truly feel to this God who has reached toward them with covenant love. These pray-ers are connected deeply to God and thus, do not live in fear that they will receive a Divine cold-shoulder simply because their hatred consumes them.

I get it. But I also want to bring a different consciousness to the psalms. I understand what these astute theological minds say about the need for honest expression in prayer, but I also find that the kind of dualism (either-or thinking . . . insiders vs outsiders mentality) prayed in the biblical Psalms becomes license for contemporary persons who believe retribution, vengeance, and human violence is "the will of God." More fundamentally, persons feel justified in their own experience as THE way, vilifying anyone who disagrees as "the enemy" in ways that perpetuate divisions and hatred.

The question I ask today is: "What lies beneath a psalm when we pray it?" Or for that matter, what lies beneath any spoken prayer we offer to God?

What assumptions do we make about God when we pray as we do?

What assumptions do we make about life? . . . about ourselves? . . . about other people (including "enemies" or "our people")? . . . about the created world?

I'll give an example. Yesterday I spent time with Psalm 43. The first two stanzas of the prayer go like this:

Defend me, O God, and plead my cause
against a godless nation.
From deceitful and cunning men
rescue me, O God.

Since you, O God, are my stronghold,
why have you rejected me?
Why do I go mourning
oppressed by the foe?

The pray-er believes himself or herself to be up against a "godless nation", while clearly believing himself/herself to be a God-person, hence the repetition of "O God" through the two stanzas. These "godless" ones are deceitful and cunning, thus the prayer for God to defend, to plead her cause, and to rescue. Clearly, this person praying believes that she has made God her "stronghold."

The assumption, then, is that God should protect, defend, and rescue such people who are faithful to God. Instead, the person praying experiences her situation of being "oppressed by the foe" as being "rejected" by God.

Do you see the underlying thread? "I have made God my stronghold. But in my actual life-experience, I am oppressed by my foes and thus in mourning. That means God has rejected me."

I don't expect the person who first prayed or wrote this psalm to have a different consciousness. He/she prayed as best they understood God, themselves, and life. They prayed honestly out of their experience of God.

But neither should I -- nor you -- be expected to pray with their consciousness . . . that is, with an Ancient Near Eastern understanding of God, life, self, and others.

For example, what might it mean if I did not assume that all those who disagree with me are "godless, deceitful, and cunning"? They may be, but in some ways I am, too. In that case, why would I assume that God would attend to my prayer any more than God attends to their prayer?

Further, assuming that I have, in fact, made God my stronghold -- whatever that might mean -- is it really a sign of God's rejection of me if I find myself in grief or mourning? Has God actually turned God's back on me if something in life is squeezing me or "oppressing" me? Is that truly a valid assumption? Because if I go there, I am implicitly suggesting that God rewards goodness and punishes badness . . . that God is present to me when things are on the up-and-up, but turns away from me when I face obstacles.

Finally, two things:
1. Pray the Psalms. I'm still an advocate for praying the many psalms in the Hebrew scriptures. But bring your own understanding of God, your self, others, and life to your prayer. If you find a phrase or line that is difficult for you to pray, explore why it is difficult for you. What in you resists the words of the actual psalm? How is your understanding of God different from what you are praying in the actual psalm? How would you pray it differently? Then write your own prayer.

2. Be open to your own ongoing unfolding. Don't become too attached to your own prayer, as if you have arrived at a final state of completion when you come to a different understanding of a psalm-prayer. You, I, and all of us are continually unfolding, so don't get locked into the way you understand God today . . . or the way you pray today. . . . The near-fatal mistake in spirituality is to settle in where you are, to count your present place in life as the end or the destination, when in fact all of us are ever and always on the way.

So pray the psalms in your own way. But hold them loosely. Don't be surprised, if you keep up the practice, that at some point in the future you find yourself with a different take on a psalm than you have now. We're all about the journey . . . the journey that leads on and on into the boundless future.

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