Guests: and

Leading Question: What messages have you received over the course of your life about what prayer
is? How did you learn how to pray?

Scripture Focus: Psalm 23, Daniel 2:20-23, Psalm 44, Psalm 22, Psalm 60

The Big Idea: Prayer is both automatic and also a skill we can learn and cultivate. The Psalms allow us to glimpse many facets of people’s journeys with God and each other, and praying the psalms can serve as a kind of apprenticeship in prayer.

For Discussion:

Most of the Psalms mentioned in this lesson are lament psalms. Before we examine this kind of poem in more detail, consider a feature that is found in a number of model prayers in the Bible: a mixing of pronouns that demonstrate shifts in who the words are directed to. In some cases there is a clear progression, from talking about God to talking to God, third person (God, he) to second person (you). Consider the following examples:

Psalm 23

1 The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures
  he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he refreshes my soul.
  He guides me along the right paths
  for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk
  through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
  for you are with me;
  your rod and your staff,
  they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
  in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
  my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
  all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD

In other cases there is not a clear progression. Consider this excerpt from Psalm 44, a lament listed in the lesson for this week. In this prayer, the speaker starts out talking directly to God, then moves to third person and speaks about God briefly in verses 20-21, and then returns to second person speech directed to God.

Psalm 44:

17 All this came upon us,
  though we had not forgotten you;
  we had not been false to your covenant.
18 Our hearts had not turned back;
  our feet had not strayed from your path.
19 But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals;
  you covered us over with deep darkness.
20 If we had forgotten the name of our God
  or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
21 would not God have discovered it,
  since he knows the secrets of the heart?
22 Yet for your sake we face death all day long;
  we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.
23 Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
  Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
24 Why do you hide your face
  and forget our misery and oppression?
25 We are brought down to the dust;
  our bodies cling to the ground.
26 Rise up and help us;
  rescue us because of your unfailing love.

Discussion Question: What does this interweaving of second person and third person speech show us about prayer? What might it reveal about divine-human relationship?

Between a third and a half of the songs and poems collected in the book of Psalms are laments. The lament poems in the Hebrew Bible provide a window into how people in ancient Israel processed experiences that jarred them out of their long-held assumptions about who God is and how life works. Most lament poems contain a standard list of elements, though they are not always in the same order and the number of lines devoted to a certain element varies widely between poems.

Here is a list of the basic elements of lament in the Hebrew Bible, with examples from Psalm 22:

Address: “My God, My God,”
Complaint: “Why have you forsaken me?”
Request: “Do not be far from me”
Motivation: “In you our ancestors put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them”
“You brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.”
“You are my strength”
Confidence/praise: “I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you.”

Discussion question: When you consider laments as an important part of how the Psalms teach us to pray, what elements of this form of poetry stand out to you? How do you think the practice of lament contributes to human resilience in the face of complexity and crisis?

Eugene Peterson, in his book Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, wrote, “Abstraction is an enemy to prayer. Beautiful ideas are an enemy to prayer. Fine thoughts are an enemy to prayer. Authentic prayer begins when we stub our toes on a rock, get drenched in a rainstorm, get slapped in the face by an enemy—or run into the tree that has been in our path for so long that we have ceased to see it, and now stand back, in bruised and wondering awe before it” (pp. 27-28).

Sometimes specific, vivid portrayals of pain, sorrow, betrayal, regret, and grief are conduits of connection and healing. They provide a sense of being seen and known, a sense of solidarity with others in the human experience. All the psalms have vivid lines, stirring imagery that carries the reader or prayer into embodied memory, though the lament poems are particularly vivid.

Discussion question: What is a line or verse from the Psalms that captures your attention or that effectively puts words to your experience? What makes that line or verse stand out to you?

Lament psalms don’t focus only on individual experiences of betrayal and pain; there are countless communal laments. And many of these communal laments give voice to questions of national identity and how to make sense of experiencing catastrophe as God’s chosen people. Psalms 60 is one of these psalms, a prayer for God to step in and grant the people victory. The lesson emphasizes the first five verses of this poem, and the closing line of this section offers a space for serious reflection.

Psalm 60:

1 You have rejected us, God, and burst upon us;
  you have been angry—now restore us!
2 You have shaken the land and torn it open;
  mend its fractures, for it is quaking.
3 You have shown your people desperate times;
  you have given us wine that makes us stagger.
4 But for those who fear you, you have raised a banner
  to be unfurled against the bow.
5 Save us and help us with your right hand,
  that those you love may be delivered.

Discussion question: What does it mean to be part of the group that God loves? In our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our global community, how do we pray when what is “good” for others hurts us, and when what is “good” for us hurts others?

The Psalms invite (through example) us to bring our full selves, including our many experiences and the full range of emotions, to God in prayer, both alone and in the presence of others.

Eugene Peterson writes, “It is easy to be honest before God with our hallelujahs; it is somewhat more difficult to be honest in our hurts; it is nearly impossible to be honest before God in the dark emotions of our hate. So we commonly suppress our negative emotions (unless, neurotically, we advertise them). Or, when we do express them, we do it far from the presence, or what we think is the presence, of God, ashamed and embarrassed to be seen in these curse-stained bib overalls. But when we pray the psalms, these classic prayers of God’s people, we find that will not do. We must pray who we actually are, not who we think we should be. In prayer, all is not sweetness and light. The way of prayer is not to cover our unlovely emotions so that they will appear respectable, but expose them so that they can be enlisted in the work of the kingdom” (Answering God, p. 100).

Discussion question: What are some prayer practices that provide space and time for you to connect with God in healing ways? It is easy to feel pressure to pray a certain way. What has helped you customize your prayer practices to fit your needs?

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