Old Songs, New Feel

I was raised in a non-liturgical church tradition. That didn’t mean we didn’t have a worship liturgy, just that we didn’t call it that. 

Part of that upbringing was a disdain for written prayers, except, of course, The Lord’s Prayer. The theory was that God wanted to hear what was on our hearts, spontaneous thoughts, not what someone else had written out for us to pray.

As I got older my thinking shifted a little. I remember a conversation with a friend who had, I had noticed, written out his prayer before praying in a congregation setting. I didn’t understand why he needed to do that.

Turns out he was nervous about public speaking. He was no less heart-felt, but he didn’t want to freeze up, to stammer, and detract from other’s worship. I could understand that. 

I haven’t adopted that practice myself. When I am asked to pray publicly I just trust the Holy Spirit to give me the words. Sometimes I have no idea what I have said. 

Still, I have developed an appreciation for liturgy, for the comfort of familiar rites. I was at an Orthodox funeral service recently where there was lots of repetition, but I understood the need. Sometimes it takes repetition to cut through the grief with hope.

It is that appreciation that led me to Sheltering Mercy – Prayers inspired by the Psalms. Ryan Whitaker Smith and Dan Wilt have taken the first 75 of the Biblical Psalms and recast them as prayers. I was curious as to their efforts.

Basically they have taken the verses of The Psalms, written originally as musical lyrics, and reimagined them as free verse prayers. It is an interesting result.

For me, many of the originals sound like prayers. I’m not sure these newer versions are needed. However, freed from the constrains of translation, the authors can breathe new life, at times into these 3,000-year old words.

Their version of Psalm 2, for example, was one that I could very easily see myslef praying. It starts: Lord, sometimes I am burdened by the politics of earth; the serpentine plots of the proud; the ruthless maneuvering of the underhanded and the double-dealing.

I think anyone who has ever worked in politics could echo that prayer.

Smith and Wilt have taken full advantage of seeing how the Psalms are an integral part of other scriptures, and have worked some non-Psalm passages into their prayers. Occasionally they range even further afield, as their pryaer inspired by the 23rd Psalm, perhaps the best-known of David’s songs, looks to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia: You are the shepherd of my soul, guiding me to places of rest, far from the noise and clamor…Lead me Lord. Further Up. Further In.

As a “book” to be read from cover to cover, I’m not sure Sheltering Mercy works. But then, it isn’t intended to be read that way. Each morsel is to be savored individually, considered on its own at leisure, not abandoned for whatever is coming next.

The chapters are not merely numbered (as most of the Psalms are, but have titles that hint to the prayer subject: “A Hypocrite Hymn,” “Restorer of Broken Things,” and “Patient Chrysalis” seemed to me to be drawing the reader to explore more.

This is a devotional piece, an accompaniment to Scripture reading. I can see that many people would use this work as part of their daily quiet time with God, either beginning or ending with one of these prayers.

When I first picked up the book I wasn’t all that impressed. That must have been something to do with my mood, becasue the next time I looked at it I found the prayers speaking to me, illuminating the psalm in a new way. Which shows that first impressions don’t have to be final.

There are 150 Psalms in The Bible. With only the first 75 covered in Sheltering Mercy, I’m sure another volume is on the way.

“Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications Inc.

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