It’s 1:30 in the morning, and I sit soaking in the old familiar Psalms. During the quiet of the night, ancient songs wash over me, renew me and gently lead me back to sleep. These same phrases have quieted my soul for decades. Little phrases linger in my mind, “Teach me your way O Lord, that I may walk in your truth”; “Give light to my eyes or I shall fall into the sleep of death”; and the simple “Bless the Lord O my soul.” In nights of distress, days of darkness and even moments of pure joy, these Psalms give articulation to my stammering heart.
Psalms reverberate across my life, shaping my imagination and even ordering my steps in this beautiful and sometimes all too confusing world. Studying the Psalms has helped me to see the outworking of Torah in worship as well as the beauty of the various forms. At the same time, the simplicity of rehearsing single phrases like a breath prayer inspires and shapes me.
During my second year of college, the Word of God suddenly burned in me with such fire that I carried the Bible from class to class. In every spare moment, I consumed, soaked, listened and rehearsed the Scriptures. Psalm 73:25 became my heart’s cry, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.” Several years later, the same cry resounded in midst of an extended season when God seemed to have disappeared from my life. In two very different emotional settings, this same prayer gave clear voice the cry of my heart.
In the darkest season of that year, I struggled to think clearly for even a few minutes at a time. Writing little phrases of the Psalms on business cards, I carried them around all day and read them aloud as often as I was alone. As the water of death choked my hope, again and again, I would cry out, “You will not abandon me to the grave” (Psalm 16:10).
In my early years after college, I encountered several aging Christians who had lost their joy and become embittered. Is this the shape of faith over time? Do we lose hope and joy as we face the struggles of living under this burning sun? Psalm 92 became a cry for endurance in faith, “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree; they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age; they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him” (Psalm 92:12-15). Fifteen years later that same prayer continued to echo from my lips, but now it was set against the backdrop of my failing kidney and longing to bear fruit in this life.
Over the years, all the many phrases that echoed in my heart gave voice to longings that were deeper than I understood. Murmuring the Psalms was not simply a technique but a way of praying, seeing, and walking forward. When Joshua calls the people to meditate upon the Torah day and night (Joshua 1:8), this word for meditating can be likened to murmuring or softly whispering or echoing. And in one sense, this is the shape of Biblical catechesis. It is the ever-constant reverberation of God’s Word sounding down into the soul and resounding back out into the world in word and deed. We are living echoes, sounding boards of grace, walking prayers.
These little phrases point back to a greater whole, a greater wisdom that is bigger than we fully grasp and yet it always unfolding before us in doxology throughout Scripture and in all creation. We grasp a phrase, a snatch, and know that it points out to a greater fullness. In a similar way, the liturgical drama of weekly worship is bigger than we can grasp in a single thought. We take hold in certain phrases that resound in and through us, and these phrases take hold of us, leading us into a movement, a drama that is bigger and more wondrous than we can fully appreciate.
Over time, we realize the Scripture and the liturgy are gifts that help awaken us to a world of doxology, echoing in every bush and tree. And this world dances before the Creator always pointing our eyes outward beyond the horizon of what we know. Each glimpse, each fragmentary glimmer is unveiling the whole, a greater love who has called us, gathered us, named us, adopted us, and is leading us into the fullness of love.
So I continue to ruminate, murmur, rehearse the Psalms of Gods people. In the night hours, the morning hours, and throughout the day, I quietly breathe these words, these prayers to the loving Creator who holds me and keeps me through the watches of the night, and will keep holding and keeping me through the burning hours of daylight.
Image by Ann W (used by permission via Creative Commons).