My apologies for the delay this week, faithful Reader. I’ve had a very unexpectedly busy couple of days, filled with both my own stuff and that of other people.
In the absence of a truly prayerful heart this Lent, I’ve taken to spending time with the Psalms. They’re often called “the prayer book of the Bible,” so I’ve been trying to borrow some of the expression they have since my tongue has been stilled these forty days.
I take one psalm and read it every day for one week, trying to get to as many translations as I can (or have energy to care enough to do) as well as poetic spin-offs and such. I’m trying to read at least once every day to make it sink into my bones. Rather arbitrarily, I’ve decided the psalms by starting with number five and going onto every multiple of five (I like multiples of five); this week is Psalm 20.
This week especially I’ve had great need of the prayer that God answer me in my day of trouble—I’m into some really stupid stuff and having a lot of difficulty maintaining my vows to God instead of doing whatever I feel like doing. This psalm is spot on, then, except for the fact that it makes it my problem to start the conversation.
I am not a fan of this. I am not a fan of asking for help from anybody ever, or of talking about what’s bothering me, or of saying I can’t handle this. But this week I have had to talk to Interpreter, Mr. Great-Heart, Discretion, Magister, Reliever, and Mr. Worldly Wiseman to say, “I am not okay, I need a hand, please help me out.” That’s a lot of people. That’s a lot of talking. That’s a lot of really taking a look at how I trust my friends and guides with my self.
And then I come home and read this psalm that says I have to go through all that again with God? No thanks.
But that is the nature of prayer and of relationship—yes, God already knows all that I’m going to say and all that I need to deal with and all of how that’s wrecking my life. But to engage the fact that this is a personal God is to have the conversation anyway; to ask such that God would have to answer, to send up the burnt offerings.
And then to pause.
Some of the translations take out that “selah” that comes in after verse three because we don’t actually know what it means. It’s one of those words that pops up in the Hebrew Old Testament (almost exclusively in the psalms; the only other place it’s found, I think, is in Habakkuk, and really, how many folks read Habakkuk? Not enough, that’s how many) that no one has ever really translated, but I like the ideas some scholars have to take it as something like a rest in a musical score (because these are musical, remember), which is great to me as a singer. Sometimes you need to breathe, to pause and think on what just happened. Let God savor your burnt offerings, the psalm says; pause. Selah.
I like the CEB version of the next verse: “Let God grant what is in your heart.” Not only do I have to talk to God, I have to let Him answer. I have to give Him the space to be in this conversation with me, to respond to me. I have to respect that He is in this, too, and that’s kind of a big deal. I have to respect God’s space? In a relationship? Between a human and a deity? Just how free do I think God made me?
Totally free, if I believe what I say I believe. Which means that, when I engage God in conversation (which is what prayer is), I have to be willing to let that be a conversation—I talk, He talks, we both listen. And then I have to believe that His listening actually does something.
Verse six has the very powerful verb “know” regarding the psalmist’s understanding of God. “Now I know that the LORD saves His anointed,” says the ESV. Do I know that—or do I just believe it? Or think it? Or, in what is likely most accurate, hope it? Do I hope that God will save me from the hole I’m bent on digging or do I know in the dark parts of my guts where I know that I’m not going to fall off the ground when I lift one of my feet because gravity will keep me anchored? Do I have that kind of certainty when I talk to God?
Do you, Reader? What would it look like if we did? What would our relationship with God be if we stopped hoping and started knowing what God does? For me, it would radically change things. My whole prayer life would be different, and I don’t mind admitting that to you because it is something I believe God is calling me to work on. I do not trust God, not really, not enough to know. And that is holding the whole of my possible ministry in check, because God can do a lot with a willing heart but can do so infinitely much more with one that trusts.
“Save, Lord,” says verse nine in the KJV. I don’t know Hebrew, so I don’t know if it’s just the bare-assed imperative in the original language, and my Greek isn’t strong enough to sort out the differing numbers of the Septuagint. It isn’t an imperative in the Latin Vulgate, but I love that translation that has no bones about it. “Save.” No direct object, no subject, just a flat-out cry for salvation. “Hear us when we call.”
Give us the courage to call in the first place.
May He send thee help from the sanctuary, and strengthen thee out of Zion. (Psalms 20:2, KJ21)