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Longing to Pray
How the Psalms Teach Us to Talk with God
By J. Ellsworth Kalas
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2006 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Ultimate Friendship
I have lived long enough to know that very few things in this world, if any, matter as much as friendship. Friendships, like dogs, come in so many shapes and sizes that one can hardly believe that the same generic name applies to all. Friendship can mean everything from the person we know only at the checkout counter or at the dry-cleaning shop (in many cases we hardly know their names) to persons who are so much a part of our lives that it's hard to imagine life without them. Each year I realize with more intensity the truth of John Donne's words that "any man's death diminishes me"; that even casual friendships make up more of the fabric of our lives than we realize, and that our great friendships are simply invaluable.
Thousands of times I have remembered the words of Grace Bagby, a high-school English teacher, and hundreds of times I have quoted her: If you get one true friend in this lifetime, she told our class, just one true friend, you're rich. I have been rich several times by Miss Bagby's definition, and I am rich in that fashion today. I thank God nearly every day for such friendships, and I cherish such wealth for you.
But I've also lived long enough to know that one shouldn't expect too much from any human friend. That's because our human friends are human. They get tired—tired in general, and sometimes tired of us. They have problems of their own. They are limited in strength, patience, and understanding. One shouldn't expect too much of any human friend.
You and I need another Friendship. We need God. When Blaise Pascal said that there is in every human heart a God-shaped void that only God can fill, he was describing the friendship that matters most; indeed, that matters eternally. And for this friendship with God, the language of communication is prayer. This language is so instinctive to us that we humans pray whether we are religious or not. Some don't pray much, and as a result, they don't have much of a friendship, but I suspect that everyone sends out a prayer now and then. Some years ago a public opinion survey in a major European country revealed that in that country more people prayed than believed in God, which is to say that people yearn for this friendship even when they resent, question, or deny the Friend.
As for me, I confess without apology that this is the friendship without which I could not survive. I have read of the saints who have passed through the "dark night of the soul," periods of time when they could not in any way sense the reality or the presence of God. Call me a spiritual coward, but I do not wish to reach such a level of saintliness that God would entrust me to pass through such an experience of holy absence. My need for the Divine Friendship is too great. I cherish open communication with God. Above everything, I need this friendship.
The biblical book of Psalms is the book of this eternal friendship. It provides more understanding for this friendship than any other single book in the Bible. More than that (and here is the point and reason for this book), it gives us the language of the friendship, and it does so in simple and wonderful ways. For this reason, I see the book of Psalms as the best place to learn how to pray.
What do I mean by this? If you have read the book of Psalms, you know that it never gives instruction in prayer. In no place does it tell us how to approach God; in no place, indeed, does it offer a defined pattern such as we have in what we call "the Lord's Prayer." So how is it that I consider the psalms to be the premier place of instruction in prayer?
I can best explain what I mean by describing a scene that was a commonplace until cookbooks became a standard best-seller in American bookstores. At a time when recipes were more often kept on slips of paper or pasted in dough-spattered books, or in some cases simply stored in memory, girls just into their teens approached a grandmother (or perhaps a great aunt) with a conversation that ran like this.
"Granny, would you give me the recipe for your baking-powder biscuits?"
"Oh, pshaw, there's nothing to it. First, you get yourself a bowl."
"How big a bowl?"
"Oh, you'll know. Just the right size for what you're going to do. Then you pour in some flour."
"Well, you can tell by how it fills the bottom of the bowl. Then stir in some milk."
"How much, Granny?"
"Just enough so that when you stir it, it feels right."
"I'll tell you what, Granny, how would it be if I just went to the kitchen with you, and followed you around and wrote down what you're doing while you make a batch of biscuits?"
Quite simply, that's what I want to do in this book. I want us to go to the kitchen with the great, very human souls who gave us the book of Psalms, and watch them as they pray. As we watch them, we will learn how they prayed, and we will discover that their way of praying is not limited to a certain time or culture. Their prayers provide us with the language of the eternal Friendship.
But first, let me tell you a little about this book of Psalms. With 150 chapters, this is the longest book in the Bible. By position, it falls almost exactly in the middle of the Bible—that is, the middle of the combined Old and New Testaments. I am not suggesting that this position is divinely ordained, but it is wonderfully appropriate, because if there is any single book that is at the heart of the Bible, this is it. This is the book that deals most openly and directly with all the varying moods and circumstances of our divine-human relationship. One of my colleagues, an Anglican priest named Tory Baucum, has told me of a time early in his Christian walk when he asked his mentor how to pray. "Pray the psalms," his friend replied. "But I don't understand them," Tory objected. "That doesn't matter," his friend said. "They understand you." They do, indeed. Because the psalms encompass the extraordinary range of human emotion and human experience—especially as those experiences affect our relationship with God—they understand us better than if we had written them ourselves.
But who did write them? In a sense, it doesn't matter. Most of us, however, want if possible to know the name of an author. Tradition has helped us in this matter, in that names have been associated with 104 of the 150 psalms. Seventy-four are attributed to David; thus we often refer to this book as "the psalms of David," even though his name is tied to not quite half of the collection. In some instances, we are even told of the circumstances in which David wrote the psalm. As a preacher and teacher, I'm glad for this, because this information helps me in giving human substance to the psalm. But as the Scottish preacher George S. Gunn said, "It is the Psalm itself that is the treasure, not the period or the circumstances in which it was written" (George S. Gunn, Singers of Israel [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1963], 17).
Nevertheless, we enjoy knowing everything we can about those who wrote the psalms. These writers are so candid and transparent that I find myself thinking I've met them somewhere. Twelve of the psalms are attributed to Asaph. Asaph was David's choir director, his in-house musician. His name is attached to one of the most moving and autobiographical of all the psalms, the seventy-third, a poem in which the writer confesses that "my feet had almost stumbled; / my steps had nearly slipped," because he "was envious of the arrogant" when he saw "the prosperity of the wicked" (Psalm 73:2-3). I know, for sure, that I have met Asaph; I've met him in each of the congregations where I was a pastor and several other times along the way.
The "sons of Korah" are identified as the authors of eleven psalms. They represent a story of grace and restoration. In the strenuous days when Moses was leading the nation of Israel through the wilderness, a strong-willed man named Korah mounted a revolt against Moses. On the surface, he sounds like a true populist: "All of the congregation are holy," he said, so why should Moses and Aaron exalt themselves above the rest of the people (Numbers 16:3, adapted)? But I suspect that Korah was more a politician than a populist; he just wanted a piece of the action for himself and the coterie of leaders who had joined him. As the writer of Numbers reports it, the whole group was mercilessly wiped out.
But this was not the end of the story. Ten chapters later the writer reports, "Notwithstanding, the sons of Korah did not die" (Numbers 26:11). Indeed, with the passing of generations, we find them among the hymn writers of Israel. I doubt that these "sons of Korah" were the first generation of Korah's descendants, since the psalms are generally considered from a later era, but we remember that this phrase, "sons of" or "son of," was used to describe any succeeding generations. Thus, kings half-a-dozen generations removed from King David are referred to as a "son of David." But I repeat, there is a message of grace in any psalm that bears the superscription "of the sons of Korah." It is a declaration that no one should be written off because of his or her ancestry. The descendants of a miscreant may some day fill the world with song.
Heman is named as the author of one psalm, Psalm 88. His name is hardly a household word even among faithful Bible students, but the writer of First Chronicles pays him a fairly lengthy tribute. God had promised "to exalt him; for God had given Heman fourteen sons and three daughters. They were all under the direction of their father for the music in the house of the LORD with cymbals, harps, and lyres for the service of the house of God" (1 Chronicles 25:5-6). Now and then our contemporary culture finds a musical family; I think of several that have been part of television lore over the years. I venture that Heman's seventeen children, all of them singers and some of them also proficient with cymbals, harps, and lyres, would have held their own with any twenty-first-century family combo.
Solomon is named as the author of two psalms, and Ethan and Moses are also credited with a single psalm each. This leaves several psalms for which no author is named; credit them to that well-known personality "Anonymous." I dare to suggest that the forty-six includes both men and women, and persons of widely varying positions and achievements. If Amos, the herdsman, can give us the majestic language of prophecy, who knows what occupations are represented among the nearly a third of the psalms that are unattributed? And if Miriam and Deborah could write songs that are recorded in the Scriptures, why couldn't women be the authors of some of the anonymous psalms?
Let me add a further word about the authorship of the psalms; two comments, in fact. First, this: Biblical scholars raise several questions about the superscriptions that appear with the psalms. The scholars remind us that these entries were not part of the original psalms, and that they probably represent traditions that were attached to particular psalms. We may note, however, that the traditions are very old, and that it is quite likely that the stories on which they are based are very substantial, so we trust them with reason. Second, scholars also remind us that ancient peoples saw authorship differently than we do. After all, there were no copyright laws in those days! When someone entered a superscription such as "A psalm of David," it could mean (as we usually interpret it) "written by David." But it could also mean "in the style of David." Or it could be a poem someone else wrote and dedicated to David; this, too, would be a "psalm of David."
All of this is to say that we shouldn't bet our lives on the authorship of a given psalm, or on the circumstances in which it might have been written. But as I have already said, the traditions surrounding the identified psalms are very old; old enough that the superscriptions are found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (ancient biblical texts that date between the second century B.C. and the first century A.D.), and significant enough that in many versions the verse numbering begins with these notations. So whereas we wouldn't build a doctrine around the authorship or make it an issue of controversy, we can justifiably use the information to help us appreciate the message of the psalm and the mood that seems to infuse the writing. You will find me doing so on occasions in succeeding chapters. But above all, I come back to the basic understanding that the value of a psalm is not in its particular authorship or in the possible peculiar circumstances in which it was written, but in its message.
We discover early that the psalms deal with a vast variety of subjects, but is there any prevailing order in the way the psalms come together? I haven't found any in the years of my reading, and I haven't seen any proof of structure in those scholars who have written about the psalms. There is general agreement that the psalms divide into five books (some feel that this is intended to follow the pattern of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible): Psalms 1-41, Psalms 42-72, Psalms 73-89, Psalms 90-106, and Psalms 107-150. Each of these sections concludes with a statement of finality. It is also true that Psalm 1 is obviously intended to introduce the rest of the collection, and that Psalm 150 is meant to be a grand climax. And there are also several places where psalms of a particular type are clustered together. But on the whole, there is no continuing sense of organization. It's not like a hymnal, where songs are distributed under doctrinal or subject headings, nor is it like any typical modern collection of poetry or readings, where the material is organized topically or chronologically. If you're looking for psalms in a particular mood or covering a particular subject or reflecting a specific period, you will look in vain. The psalmists, and those who finally brought the collection together, seemed to have no such aim in mind. If there is any predictable order, we have yet to discover it.
Perhaps that's the way it should be. The psalms aren't organized, just as friendship isn't organized. We can make ourselves open to friendship, but we can't really make it happen. We can nurture friendship, and we should, but friendship often has a way of confounding us. The friendships that have blessed my life the most beautifully have rarely been predictable. We don't usually give people a Rorschach test for friendship, or a Myers-Briggs. Friendship seems to have some rules of its own, most of which we can never define.
But come to think of it, that shouldn't surprise us, because life isn't neatly organized either, and since friendship unfolds in the context of daily life, it can hardly be expected to fit into neatly engineered rules. Friendship has more to do with desire than with design. It is a grand thing, but it flourishes in common places, and often in unlikely ones, like the flower that blooms through a crack in the asphalt.
And so it is in our friendship with God. It can spring to life anywhere; that's what we mean by grace. But having sprung to life, friendship—whether human or divine—deserves attention. The writers of the psalms will teach us how to exercise such attention. We just have to follow the writers as they pursue their own extraordinary friendship with the dearest of all friends: God.CHAPTER 2
Secrets of Friendship: CANDOOR
Scripture Reading: Psalm 44
One of the truest measures of friendship is the degree to which we can be candid with one another. Obviously this rule varies with personalities. Some people are candid (perhaps painfully so) with almost everyone, whereas others find it difficult to be candid with even their closest friends. Yet even after qualifying the rule, all of us know how much candor reflects the quality of friendship. At the early stages of friendship, we're guarded in the opinions we venture and careful lest by some ineptness we offend. This carries over into even minor matters. Eating out with someone for the first time, we're likely to be cautious about what we order, wondering if we might in some way offend the other person's taste—and all the more so if the other person is picking up the tab. With an old friend, there is no such uneasiness.
When the friendship is deep and time-tested, we can say whatever is on our minds, even without being unduly careful in our choice of words. We know that the friend will accept our opinion for what it's worth. We know, too, that the friend will look charitably on our sometimes-erratic moods and statements. Later they may remind us playfully about what we said at that unguarded moment, but our irresponsible comments are accepted because we're friends. Friendship makes for candor. And what is true of friendship in general is still truer in the divine-human friendship. No wonder then that candor is such a significant element in the experience of prayer.
Excerpted from Longing to Pray by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Copyright © 2006 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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