Becoming Fluent in the Psalms

woman-praying

I’ve always disliked memorizing Scripture. I find it mechanical, tedious and just plain hard. It’s one of those disciplines where it is easy to get off track and focus only on the task at hand, while losing sight of the greater value. Plus, it seemed to feed into my spiritual pride as it adds another “feather” to the cap of piety. And I have enough spiritual pride issues to deal with.

But recently, I’ve realized that this is an immature and short-sighted perspective. Of course, it’s hard and easy to lose sight of the purpose. And yes, it can lead to spiritual pride. But it can also lead to a greater depth in my relationship with God. That is the “Pearl of great price” – an outcome that is worth whatever cost I could pay.

This year has opened my soul to many things: Sabbath, contemplative prayer, the Examen, and the Daily Office – to name a few. I believe it is through the practice of these spiritual rhythms that opened my soul to a deeper hunger: to understand the language of prayer and worship between God and His people. I’m not talking about heavenly languages or tongues (that’s for another time), but the jargon and themes that help me to pray and worship at a deeper level than what I can come up with on my own.

I’ve been told by many that the Psalms is the book of prayer and worship for the people of God. The Daily Office is largely based on praying the Psalms. And I’ve discovered a deep connection point – actually “anchoring” is a more apt term – with the Psalms. There are times when I pray “free form” (those spontaneous prayers of the heart that evangelical churches train their congregants to pray) and catch myself “parroting” Psalm-phrases ; not because it sounds more spiritual, but because the Psalm phrases better describe what my heart is feeling better than my own words!

I have a deep desire to really learn the Psalms so that they would be woven into the fabric of my soul and become the source of my prayer theology and practice. In other words, I want to become “fluent” in the language of the Psalms. So, as part of my Personal Worship Time I am starting to memorize the Psalms.

In four weeks time, I’ve memorized the first four Psalms. It is a snail’s pace and the discipline is pretty arduous for me. I try to memorize a new verse every day. And then I review all four Psalms, because otherwise I will forget what I’ve already learned. Sometimes, I will try to recite the memorized Psalms in the car when I head out to a meeting or an appointment.

Like I said, it’s hard and it’s still way too early to determine if I am becoming more fluent in the language of prayer and worship, or just getting more jumbled. But I do notice two things:

1. The Psalms are beginning to become more “dimensional” to me. The emotions in the Psalms are becoming more raw and vivid (“Strike all my enemies on the jaw, break the teeth of the wicked” in Psalm 3 or “The One enthroned in heaven laughs, the LORD scoffs at them” in Psalm 2). I feel the deep peace of the Psalmist (“I lie down and sleep. I wake again for the LORD sustains me”) as well as his deep angst (“Many are saying of me, ‘God will not deliver him’”). It begins to seep in after you’ve said them a hundred times.

2. The earlier Psalms are beginning to flow from my lips without much thought. While my recitation of Psalm 4 is still very choppy (filled with a lot of “umms” and periods of intense silence as I wrack my brain, trying to remember), Psalm 1 flows like “satiny velvet” – smooth as silk (I love shouting out, “Not so the wicked!” with my best Sir Laurence Olivier impersonation).  But more important than the command I have over the words, is that the Word is having greater command over me. I feel some of that.

Scripture memory seems to be a lost rhythm in our contemporary church. Most have a hard enough time opening up the Bible to read it, much less attempt to memorize some of it. But I feel like I’ve rediscovered a something far more valuable than I first realized. It’s kind of like the feeling you get when you learn that your one carat cubic zirconium is actually a flawless diamond upon re-examination. Memorizing Scripture, especially the Psalms, has opened up new horizons and perspectives for me. Like I said, it’s still early “in the game” for me, but I am definitely enjoying the journey. The hardness of the task is being replaced with joy for the discipline.

So for those who really hunger for the “love language” between God and His people, I encourage you to become fluent in the Psalms. It gives depth and breadth to your Whole Life Worship.

4 thoughts on “Becoming Fluent in the Psalms

  1. Try singing them. Memorization per se is almost impossible for me – except when I’m learning a song. Perhaps that’s why they were chanted – by the Jews, by the early church, by the monastics. Also, those ancients said the whole Psalter every day and I think the Benedictines chant the Psalter every week

  2. I really relate to this post. I have a poor memory and always have trouble memorizing anything. But recently I hit on a profound realization about the way I am “wired.” It came about as a result of reading a book on the secrets of memorization. The author said, “As human beings, we are wired as storytellers and storyhearers. We remember good story, we can’t help it! And we are also wired to location. We don’t have any trouble, most of the time, finding our way around our house, or around our neighborhood on walks. We don’t even have to think about whether to turn left or right to find the bathroom.” He went on to suggest ways to create unique “stories,” tying events in those stories (which you use as substitutionary metaphors for things you need to memorize, such as letters and numbers) to specific places in journeys we have taken (in order to establish sequence).

    His system works … using it, I have been able to memorize long, random passwords by creating stories and “journeys” in my mind, with sequential stops representing random letters and numbers in the password. (If you have trouble remembering people’s names, you can also use a permutation of this system to help you memorize the names of groups of people you meet.)

    So, what does this have to do with Scripture memorization? Much of Scripture, I realize, is story, or drama. So rather than focus on memorizing word-for-word passages, I have been soaking myself into specific stories in Scripture. Jacob wrestling all night with the Angel of the Lord, or Queen Esther courageously intervening to save the Jews. These stories (and so many others) contain such key nuggets of truth about who God is and who we are in relation to Him.

    And I also find that if you allow Scripture (through such soaking) to become a part of your “real” life, when you are confronted with situations where godly wisdom is needed, the Holy Spirit will see to it that the Word springs much more readily and naturally to mind. Recently, for instance, I was diagnosed with an annoying physical problem the doctor said nothing could really be done to mitigate. Paul’s story about his “thorn in the flesh” sprang immediately to mind. I wondered if God’s purpose in my weakness wasn’t to demonstrate His strength? This changed my perspective on my malady, and I began seeking to yield it up and entrust it to God as Paul had done.

    I also applaud the suggestion about using music to memorize Scripture. I often recall easily the lyrics of songs I haven’t sung in years. There’s definitely something to that. God hard-wired this whole life worship gift into our brains, didn’t He?

    • Awesome! Thanks for sharing, Larry. We’ve been so “westernized” and left brain in our approach to things like memorization, quiet times, Bible Study that we neglect the fact that the other side of the brain helps us to do these things better.

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