Am I really supposed to pray like this? That is the question I kept asking myself when I first started praying through the psalms. I tried to make the prayers “my own” but found that I could not. I tried to pray through the psalms in their totality—their joy, anger, praise, lament, exultation, despair, longing, and hope—but it was just too much for me. I wanted these prayers to echo through the depths of my heart. I tried praying through the psalms in a week, in a month, in three months. I wanted to learn how to pray, and I was sure that there was no better way to learn how to pray than to pray the prayers that Jesus himself prayed. But things did not go as planned.
I moved to Seattle during the summer of 2000 to work as the director of worship, music, and the arts at John Knox Presbyterian Church. Not long afterward, I found myself wrestling again with the psalms. I could understand how certain psalms, or even certain verses of the psalms, could be used in worship, but on the whole this seemed like an impossible task. How could I include “darkness is my closest friend” (Ps. 88:18) or, “happy are those . . . who seize your infants and dash them against the rocks” (Ps. 137:9) in our liturgy? I could imagine the uprising that would occur if I let either one of those verses be the final line of a worship song.
In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “A psalm that we cannot utter as a prayer, that makes us falter and horrifies us, is a hint to us that here Someone else is praying, not we; that the One who is here protesting his innocence, who is invoking God’s judgment, who has come to such infinite depths of suffering, is none other than Jesus Christ himself. He it is who is praying here, and not only here but in the whole Psalter.” Not only do the psalms teach me to pray, but they are also the words of Jesus Christ praying for me.
This is radical. Jesus Christ prays for us the words of the psalms that we cannot (or dare not) pray for ourselves. Bonhoeffer points out that the psalms both teach us what prayer means and give us the words of the prayers themselves. I discovered that I had been asking the wrong question. It was not “Should I be praying like this?” but rather “Should we be praying like this?” It is impossible to pray through the psalms alone. When you pray, you are always praying with the faithful around the globe and throughout the generations. You are always praying with Jesus Christ.
Bonhoeffer referred to the Psalms as the “Prayerbook of the Bible.” This got me thinking about how to pray these psalms, but also about how to sing these psalms. I started writing new songs inspired by the psalms—not just for one or two psalms, but for the whole of the Psalter. And so the project began.
I chose to work through the psalms in order, so that I would not simply choose psalms that “inspired” me on a particular day. I wanted to approach the psalms in their totality. This, of course, is easier said than done, but the first collection of new songs, inspired by the first fifteen psalms, came together and was recorded as Prayerbook, no. 1. In this process I discovered that it is one thing to write a song and then record it, but it is another thing to write a song, record it, and then introduce it to the worshiping body of the church. I was particularly nervous about the prospect of leading in songs of lament.
I will never forget the first time I did that. As the service came to an end, I prepared myself for the complaints that were sure to come my way about how I was somehow preventing the congregation from practicing resurrection—or something along those lines. To my surprise, the first person who came up to me was a man who had just started worshiping at our church. He told me that for the first time in over three years he was able to sing in a worship service; it was the first time he felt he could honestly and authentically sing the words projected on the screen. Lament was necessary for him before he could begin to even consider the concepts of praise, adoration, and thanksgiving. I believe that it is the first step for all of us—whether we are able to admit it or not.
Many mentors, including the musician Michael Card, pastor Bryan Burton, and biblical scholar Iain Provan, have helped me to understand what true worship looks like. The path to praise always goes through lament. Even Psalm 23—words that many consider the most comforting in all of Scripture—mentions “the valley of the shadow of death.” We all pass through this valley. It is the only way for us to get to the other side.
I am currently finishing up the next set of psalm songs, to be recorded as Prayerbook, no. 2 this summer. I have no idea whether I will eventually be able to make it through all one hundred and fifty psalms, but I do know that this will be a lifelong journey. This is how we are supposed to pray.
Our theology will always be born out of our doxology. Until we start praying, reading, and singing through the psalms again, we will continue to find ourselves at war when it comes to worship. These are the front lines of the “worship wars”—not style or tradition or contemporary or convergent or whatever—but learning to worship God in the fullness of our humanity. Greg Scheer, minister of worship at Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has recommended that we include at least one whole psalm in our worship as a community each week, and I wholeheartedly agree. It’s not easy and it will occasionally be awkward, but God already knows every part of our soul, so why not approach him in prayer and song with what Calvin calls an “anatomy for all the parts of the soul?”
The gospel miracle of all of this is that not only does Jesus pray for us through the psalms, but he also invites us to pray with him in the psalms. When Jesus evokes Psalm 22 from the cross we are invited to join with him in the sorrowful lament. Only by entering into Christ’s lamentation can we fully and truly praise God. This is what we are called to, and this is our hope; for “if we died with him, we will also live with him” (2 Tim. 2:11).
To hear a song from Prayerbook, no. 1 online, go to http://tinyurl.com/yjoc3m2