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Using the Psalms as Prayers

By L. L. Larkins, author of the Psalm Hymns series

I’m one of those pray-without-thinking-too-much-about-it sort of people.

I pray about parking spaces.  I walk around the lake near our home and just talk to God about the birds and turtles, the sunrise and sunset, about family struggles and many, many things. Often, the welling up of joy and surprises in nature and certain wonders of those who pass by me or walk near me make me cry in praises and gratitude.

I thank God for this and that.  I wrestle with God in tears about people and issues, and my wants and needs. Sometimes beautiful poetry will come to me in that space. I wonder if walking with the Lord is simply talking to Him about everything and listening closely enough to follow as He talks back to us.

It’s the week of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the celebration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection.

When I was struggling in a really dark spot in my life, the Psalms became deep wells of teaching for me. Once, when I was apologizing to the Lord for dragging Him through the mud and cow patties with me, sorry for bringing down His holy name to such a low level, I saw an image of him sitting next to me in a mud puddle, cross-legged, and grinning at me with a missing tooth. Half naked, and smeared with something disgusting, he said so very gently, “I’ve been dragged through much worse. You think I’m afraid of sitting with you in this mess? There’s nothing you can do to me that hasn’t been done before.”

In meditation and prayer in the Psalms, I began to understand what people had prayed for years ago when they were betrayed or when they had experienced insufferable losses, or when they suffered in post-trauma over their sins or others sins against them. That was when I began setting the five books of biblical Psalms to music that I could sing and remember.

Many of the Psalm Hymns are praises as we know and understand them to be, with the power to lift our minds out of our circumstances and place them on the Lord.  But, in addition to these types of Psalms, there are those that offer experiences of grief, pleas to God as to a doctor or a priest or a king, someone who has the power and credentials to save us.

Psalms also include some moments of pedantic teaching to engage our minds even more than our emotions. Each of these Psalms also offers some striking spiritual landmarks for life. A way to get up and go forward in trust and faith.

Psalm 78 starts out this way, sung to the tune: On Jordan’s Stormy Banks (Bound for the Promised Land)

My people, hear my words of teaching;

Listen to my words.

I begin with a parable of old

And will speak to the hidden yore, —

These are things our people have heard and known,

They are things ancestors told.

Should we try to hide them from our own

Descendants, who need to know?

Psalms can be specified as prayers to God.

But, because praying is also a communal form of conversation, the Psalms are definitely bright bits of meditation and self-talk. They were given to God’s people for the purpose of spiritual reasoning with one’s self, self-counsel. So, in that way, it is a means of God praying back to our hearts and minds and will. The Psalms are truly a two-way conversation with the Lord.

The words of this Psalm 78 informs me that there are hidden treasures and parables in the Psalms and in the stories of our spiritual ancestors that we need to know and we need to pass along to our littles and our teens asking those deep questions.

Moses wrote Psalm 91, which for all the seriousness of Moses’ reflection, I have aligned with the Doxology.  Most of the Psalms were written by King David, or by someone, a scribe in his court maybe, so it was interesting to me to get a King’s take on God’s law when people where saying law makes no difference to a walk of faith. I really struggled, you know, with what I believed about law and whether following the ten commandments was legalism. Through the Psalm Hymns, an understanding about God’s heart for how the commandments offer healthy limits, and a healthy community was forged.

The law wasn’t a mode to salvation, but it was a mode to loving one’s neighbor, a mode to justice and mercy and self-restraint, a mode to honoring our Maker.

A verse of Psalm 119 about the value of the law sung to the tune: Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine

O, that I sought You in Your commands!

Shame would release its hold of my hand.

I would have praised Your judgments in all;

I would have seen You, righteous for all.

You rule uprightly; this I discern!

Now I observe Your statutes and learn;

Oh, do not leave me, LORD, take my hand!

Do not forsake me!  LORD, help me stand.

There are Psalms that recount how the waters were separated from parts of the earth and put into boundaries, like in Psalm 24, or Psalm 104. Here is a verse of Psalm 24 sung to the hymn, At Calvary (It starts out, “Years I spent in vanity and pride. . .” did you ever sing that one in church?)

All the fullness of the earth begun,

Land and spaciousness for everyone,

All of it including what may come:

It is the Lord’s!

For He founded it upon the seas, drawing limits,

Drawing floods and springs.

Who shall come to Him, ascend His hill?

It is the Lord’s!

A verse of Psalm 104 talks about this, too, sung to the great hymn by Isaac Watts, I Sing The Mighty Power of God. 

You covered earth with waters deep

As with a garment drenched;

Above the mountain heights they stayed.

Rebuked, the seas retrench;

As voices of Your thunder played,

They hastened to their place!

Now, far away they rest in pools

And valleys where they stay.

These Psalms are wonderful teaching tools for a Bible study or a music ensemble because when the words of scripture are combined with music, our spirits soar to the heights in mysterious ways, and with the soaring of a spirit comes questions and mysteries to talk about and pray about.

One music group used the Caroling Through the Psalms book during Advent season. 

They spent the summer arranging and building parts and solos, and in the season before Christmas, they sang on the mall, at retirement homes, and in churches in their community. It was a life-changing experience to anchor their modern holiday experiences in the past prayers and testimonies of others.

God as my judge, and our judge — so often prayed to in this capacity in the Psalms, reminds me to expect justice and mercy from Him, but there is more! Did you know there is a Psalm written specifically to judges who do not judge righteously? Here is the first verse of Psalm 82 sung to The Battle Hymn of the Republic (and it only gets better).

Standing in the great assembly,

God presides and takes His place;

He is rendering His judgment

To the gods of earth’s dismay.

His decree begins by reasoning:

“How long have you displaced

The weak and fatherless?”

God presides to judge the jurists;

Earth is trembling in her footsteps;

God inherits all the nations.

Our God is over all!

To bolster confidence in depression, Psalm 27 centers me every time I sing it and amazingly, I can sing it to several tunes! Immortal, Invisible works brilliantly. Any version of Away in a Manger works wonderfully, and I will reserve the best tune in a minor key as listed in Caroling Through the Psalms.

Caroling Through the Psalms

 

The Lord is my Light and my constant Estate!
Then whom shall I fear when His Stronghold is safe?
Though evil advances against me for ill
To slander, devour me all will be well.

My rivals and enemies stumble and fall.
Though armies besiege me, I fear none at all;
Though warriors may shake down a valiant defense,
Then yes, God alone is my sheer confidence.

This one thing I seek and I ask from the Lord,
To hold my insurance for life at the Source
To gaze on His beauty to seek His embrace
For here in my trouble He will keep me safe.

Another Psalm to reach into the core of my heart and pull out the dark secrets of worry and doubt is Psalm 139. I am fearfully and wonderfully made.  I praise God every time I sing Psalm 139, and I can sing it now to the tune Open My Eyes that I May See this way.

What if I ride the wings of dawn?
What if I move to seas beyond?
Yet, even there your power abides—
and there your hand will be my guide.
What if I isolate in gloom?
begging the night to be my womb—
Yet, even there Your Presence shines!

Where shall I hide?

You made the inward parts of me—
You know my body’s mysteries.
Knitted my limbs in my mother’s womb—
Wonders performed, there’s none like You!
Your workmanship is marvelous—
Deep in my soul, I know it is!
No-one knows how You wove my frame—

Physics of God!

I can also sing this Psalm to the rollicking favorite of old town Christians, Wonderful Grace of Jesus, which Psalm 139 is also arranged for in Book Five of the Psalm Hymns.

When you worry about the power and legacy of evil people who seem to cheat death, Psalm 49 explains the path of these financial estates and those who follow the words of evil counsel, there is a Psalm for that. Sing it to the tune, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.

Hear this, all nations of the world;
You great and small in heart,
You rich and poor together hear
My wisdom on the harp!
My meditation shall be clear as understanding prose:
The proverb and the riddle sing
As I explain them both:

Why should I fear when danger comes

Confounded enemies,
The ones who put their trust in wealth

And boast iniquities?
For no one’s assets can redeem

The price of human life;

Each costly soul is ransomed by

Our God who sets its price.

 

What could we pay that God would trade

To let us out-live time?

Immortal like, enjoying life

In rich estates sublime?
For one can see that wise ones die,
And fools, they all pass away.
They leave their wealth to other hands.
Their homes become their graves.

Estates are named to flatter pride

Of pompous heirs below

But generations pass on by
Those silent wealthy bones.

Despite one’s wealth, the flesh won’t last;
For humans die like herds;

There goes the path of the arrogant,
And those who follow their words.

In Book Five, you will find the Pilgrim Psalms, the Psalms of Ascent for tours to the Holy Land. But in each and every book, you will find Psalms that are simple prayers and pleas to the Lord for help and rescue.  Like Psalm 88.  It can be sung to Lord, Plant My Feet On Higher Ground (I’m Pressing on the Upward Way.)

You are my Lord, the God Who saves;
You rescue when I cry in faith.
Oh, hear another prayer to You;
Oh, turn toward my anguished soul.

I’m overwhelmed with troubles, Lord;
See how my breath in whispers pours.
They’ve counted me among the dead;
And lacking strength, my friends have fled.

One of my favorite praise Psalms in Psalm 147, sung to the tune, Wonderful Love of Jesus! (When We All Get to Heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be!). If you have difficulties remembering these old hymn tunes, you can look them up on YouTube or in Hymnary.org. Here is a link for this song. https://hymnary.org/text/sing_the_wondrous_love_of_jesus_sing_his

Praise the LORD! O Praise the LORD from heaven!

Praise Him from the bluing atmosphere!

All His angels—hosts of armies—praise him!

Praise Him far and near!

Praise the LORD—sun and moon and all you

Twinkling starry crowns!

Praise the LORD! Every vapor—

Every particle, resound!

 

Let His creatures everywhere give praise—

For their bodies and their very lives.

His command is their existence—placing

Each where it survives!

His decrees are forever; they will never

Overturn or end.

Praise the LORD from the earth, and

From the ocean depths ascend!

Finally, I will leave you with one of our most beloved songs of victory and praise, Psalm 150. 

It is sung to the old hymn, Love Lifted Me (I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore).

Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!

Celebrate God in might!

Praise Him for celestial power—

Praise Him for heaven’s gates!

In His sanctuary—praise—sounding the trumpet loud!

For His all-surpassing greatness—praise Him now!

Praise Him with strings, sweet melodies—

Praise Him with drums and bells— loud jubilance!

Praise Him with dance—pipes—will you praise?

Praise Him with the cymbals’ clashing—

Praise! Praise! Praise!

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A Chorus of Peeps

“Good morning – “

“You’re up early!”

“Well, I wanted to catch you on your morning walk. I woke up wondering whether the chorus of spring peepers was singing around the lake yet.”

“It’s not quite warm enough. It’s only supposed to be 63 degrees in Erie today. Maybe next week.”

“Really?  We’re supposed to have another blizzard this weekend.”

“Well, that’s a Rocky Mountain springtime for ya. Once we hear them, we will have three more freezes – then, it’s truly spring!”

“The coming of the peepers foretells three more freezes?”

“Oh yes. There’s the onion leek melt, the sweet pea melt, and one more – I’m having a memory melt right now.”

“Ah, ‘Singing Spring’ comes in notes and melts, like your book.”

“None too soon.”  I’m huffing and need to hang up on this conversation in order to accomplish this morning’s walk.

Spring Peeper

“Hey, I woke up in one of those post-dream phases, the phase where you’re not asleep but not quite awake, either.”  But, my friend also has to go. We say our ‘goodbyes,’ and my thoughts turn inward, dredging up memories, I mean, really distant memories – from lifetimes ago. Mostly good ones. These memories came from this morning’s dream.

A recent National Geographic study polled people around the world—including more than 600 featured in just one study—who say they experienced a new phenomenon: coronavirus pandemic dreams.

Science has long suggested that dream content and emotions are connected to well-being while we’re awake. Bizarre dreams laden with symbolism allow some dreamers to overcome intense memories or everyday psychological stressors within the safety of their subconscious.

The study concludes,

The virus is invisible, and I think that’s why it’s transformed into so many different things.”—Deirdre Barrett, Harvard University

I agree with Deirdre. The virus is invisible, and I think that’s why it’s transformed into affecting our dream state.

I keep hearing about the virus. I have lost friends to it. But, we never really see it, do we? Most of us are prevented from seeing the worst of it, even with our loved ones.

This next season of social isolation comes with a promise of a new vaccine. It’s a trade-up.

So as I was saying, I was dreaming of my childhood lunchtime trade-ups. I was in one of those post-dream phases where you’re not asleep but not quite awake, either: the best time to rein in the edges of your dream and frame it before it is erased by cornflakes and coffee and morning light.

I remained as still as possible to capture the details.

We were all back in elementary school. As dreams rarely make sense, my classmates included pint-sized versions of people I have known throughout my lifetime, even my grandmother.

No matter that she was in grade school a full 60+ years before I was; dreams are like that.

So as dreams go – 

We were out on the playground. It was recess and lunchtime and a cluster of us were sitting cross-legged in a circle near the swing set. I remember there was a teeter-totter there, too.

We were trading lunches.

  • Two Twinkies for a homemade cookie.
  • Bologna for a PBJ.
  • An apple for a Hershey Bar … (is that a fair trade, really?)

A kid named Robert was in the circle, and he had a liverwurst sandwich. This detail rang true – there really was a kid named Robert in the first grade whose mom packed a liverwurst sandwich nearly every day. Maybe his mom had told him how the iron in it would make him grow up to be a muscle man, but Robert seemed to like it and rarely traded it out. He probably wouldn’t have very many takers, anyway.

I mean, liverwurst.

It was only a dream, but it had real slices of reality sandwiched in.

Maybe you, too, shared lunchtime negotiations back in the day.

You got rid of those vegetables and Mom was none the wiser.

We are almost always alert to something better out there. Trading.

Those murky-dream-drenched lunch swaps – snippets of real memories rising to greet me during the Great Sequester of 2020 and continuing through the springtime of 2021 with the promise of a trade-up. Is there a better vaccine to conquer our isolating fear of the real thing?

Trading lunch is metaphor-speak for what many of us are actually doing these days.

Opening our lunch pail, assessing the situation, and looking up to see what tastes better on that day. Negotiating a trade, pooling our resources, helping each other survive the “liverwurst” of life.

What if?

What if we traded sorrows for singing with a chorus of peeps?

Worry for watching the patterns. What is God doing?

Anxiety for trust in the available flavors and coming flowers.

News grazing for cloud gazing.

Swollen ankles for walking the dog.

Despair for Curiosity.

Trading trauma for a sweet pet whose fur accepts our tears.

These are good swaps, life-giving, even.

Switching out the bologna for iron-rich blood, if not liverwurst, then ribeye; trading the mundane for the moment you will savor and return to for a tasty reminder during a day of scarcity.

There’s a song lyric from a favorite musical that goes like this:

The clouded sun shall brightly rise,

And songs be heard instead of sighs.”

What a glorious swap!

A chorus of songs rising up to conquer the gloom – a goofy, ravaged, joyful mix of imperfect voices rise in natural praises every day.

Gathering momentum, drowning out the cries and making sense of the sighs.

I know the swampy spring peepers will lay bitsy eggs, attaching them to vegetation in shallow waters.  They may hatch in four short days. Their dream state will end in an energetic wetland chorus.

I rouse myself from my sleepy knowledge-memories to walk amongst the happy spring peepers, now camouflaged, who are not beleaguered by any virus. Their chorus will come melodiously and noisy overnight, regardless.

Crisp late-winter Lake Erie air has done its job. My lungs are woke. My stomach rumbles.

Do you know that 24 hours before the Spring Peepers are singing under the tell-tale ‘X’ marking on their backs, they are wee black tadpoles swimming underwater? Full metamorphosis takes an uncanny 24 hours!

Oh, Get ready!

We will wake from this dreamlike state one day, looking to each other for guidance into the light of a New Normal. We will add our voices to the chorus frogs.

Pass me the Corn Flakes, I can hardly wait.

Kathy Joy
is the author of Singing Spring, one book in the Breath of Joy seasonal coffee-table series. This month, her children’s picture book released to the public, Will You Hold My Story? This Shell Silverstein-esque story features the adult idea of listening to a child’s tales in a Mister Rogers-esque neighborhood.

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Listening is Love

By Kathy Joy, author of Will You Hold My Story? a Picture Book

Listening is a verb. I looked it up. If you need a quick reminder, a verb is “a word expressing action,” according to Webster’s.

Hmmmm. “Action” suggests movement, flow, shifting, adjusting. If anything, listening seems passive, fixed, static.

We moms know a little about the action of listening. I am a mom, but I still need my mom to listen over the dining room table.

When you really think about it, listening takes a certain skill set. It involves intentionally hitting the “Pause Button” of your day and entering into another person’s story. And their story matters. Your choice to listen to it is an action of love toward them.

There’s a cute story I heard once, about a little boy who wanted desperately for his Mommy to know everything about his day. The lad burst into the kitchen where she was prepping the evening meal. As he told his fabulous story, she continued dicing, slicing and sauteing. I’m sure she heard every word; we moms are professional multi-taskers.

Still, that wasn’t enough for the boy. He became exasperated. “Mom!” he cried out. “You’re not listening!

“Oh, yes, honey. I’m listening,” she replied.

“No! I need you to listen with your eyes.”

Wow.  The kid has a point. Listening, if it’s truly an action word, involves putting down the spatula and locking eyes with the storyteller.

Listening is something we think we are doing, when in fact we are pushing the storyteller to the margins; hearing him on the periphery. We think we’ve heard the story, but oh! How much we miss.

I am guilty as charged. Countless times, I have “listened” to the ones I love while checking my phone, scanning the menu, watching the weather channel and searching for my car keys. Is this listening? Really?! No, actually, not.

I’m practicing hitting the “Pause Button”

I’m practicing hitting the “pause button” but I’m not as successful as I’d like to be.

This happened recently when my daughter tried to convey something to me in the car.

Distracted listening is not intentionally loving. It’s minimizing. The storyteller can’t be sure your mind, much less, your heart was open to retaining the information. We are telling that precious soul we are taking in words, but not absorbing the weight and importance of the words.

How likely will this lovely daughter, this marvelous human being, come back to me with new stories to tell? The odds are getting slimmer.

I need to hit the Pause Button, silence the phone, pull the car to the curb, and just listen.

Now, before you think you are already well-versed in the art of listening, I have a simple challenge: try listening with no agenda. Go ahead. Try. It’s really hard. Honestly — I sat with a friend recently. As she shared her story, pouring out her heart, I could hardly wait to find an opening and tell my own story.

This is really not okay. Because, in that place where my brain was buzzing with the answers, the opinions, the questions and my own stories, I was missing her words. And they weren’t just words; they were pieces of her heart, laid out there on the table — bare and trembling and aching to be heard.

To march in with my pat answers is a lot like pushing her stuff to the edges because my stuff is far more interesting.
That’s kind of rude.

Listening is love

Listening is love. It’s an act of the will, an intentional nod in another person’s direction. When you love the storyteller, you need to be willing to listen without formulating your answers. That person really doesn’t need your opinion; she needs your humility and grace. She needs your ear and your uncluttered mind. She needs you to lock eyes with her, so she knows without a doubt you care.

This is exhausting. No wonder listening is a verb — the action of truly listening is a workout. Your listening-muscles will ache later, but keep at it. You just never know when a storyteller needs you to be ready.

Listening is love. Just ask my mom – she’s really good at it. I’m quite sure that’s why I carry all my most precious stories to her kitchen table. She pours tea. She sits across from me and gives me the gift of her undivided attention.

Thanks, Mom! Thanks for listening with your eyes.

Kathy Joy is the author of the children’s book, Will You Hold My Story? When her husband died suddenly, she had no one to listen to her grief and so she hired a counselor. Sally, the grief counselor, wisely advised Kathy to find someone else to hold her story alongside her.  But sometimes people can be so distracted by their activities and their own families, that God decided to create pets. Dogs are especially suited for cuddling, and walking beside you, and listening to your story. Listening moms and friends are absolute treasures.

 

 

Ages 4-8 Will You Hold My Story?

Meggi Beth and old man in Will You Hold My Story? by Kathy Joy

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