This post originally appeared on the Christian Scholar’s Review blog, and is reproduced by permission.
The way we pray says quite a lot about us. Our prayers and the way we form them project a story about what ought to be. When we draw upon the public prayers of others and make our own prayers part of public discourse, prayer becomes one form of teaching and learning. I have been trying again this semester to learn to pray.
One time-honored way of finding a frame for prayer that is richer than our personal preoccupations is to pray the Psalms. In his challenging reflections on praying the Psalms in community, Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out that this is much harder than it looks. If you pray the Psalms, Bonhoeffer says, and if you follow the time-honored practice of praying them in sequence rather than cherry-picking your favorites, and if you are being at all honest, it will not be very long before you run into something that you cannot pray.
This will especially be the case if we treat the Psalms as Scripture. That is to say, if we treat the Psalms not as a collection of inspiring sayings to be plucked out when they happen to match our feelings, but as a coherent Word that has its own integrity and pattern and does not necessarily sway to our beat. What if we read the first Psalm, and then the second, and then the third, grounding ourselves in their givenness instead of slotting them into our schedule? Pretty soon, Bonhoeffer says, if you are paying attention, you will run across things you cannot pray.1
Take Psalm 6, for example (NET):
Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger.
Do not discipline me in your raging fury.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am frail.
Heal me, Lord, for my bones are shaking.
I am absolutely terrified,
and you, Lord—how long will this continue?
Relent, Lord, rescue me!
Deliver me because of your faithfulness.
For no one remembers you in the realm of death.
In Sheol who gives you thanks?
I am exhausted as I groan.
All night long I drench my bed in tears;
my tears saturate the cushion beneath me.
My eyes grow dim from suffering;
they grow weak because of all my enemies.
Turn back from me, all you who behave wickedly,
for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.
The Lord has heard my appeal for mercy;
the Lord has accepted my prayer.
They will be humiliated and absolutely terrified.
All my enemies will turn back and be suddenly humiliated.
Thoughts of being rescued, of having prayers heard, of preferring not to be rebuked all give me points of contact with the Psalm, things with which I can resonate. But I have to confess that I did not lie awake groaning last night, and my cushion is not saturated with tears. I am stressed by the burden of present tasks and responsibilities but hardly terrified. I might have neighbors and colleagues who are not fans, but I can’t think offhand of any deadly enemies whom I urgently want to see humiliated. If I try to make this prayer mine instead of skimming ahead for a better one, I find myself being highly selective.
I had not been a Christian for long (after converting as a young adult) before I learned some strategies for dealing with this tension. There was the skim-for-the-good-stuff mode, where you let your eyes land on the promises and treat the rest as filler. Then there was the spiritualize-relentlessly mode, where I don’t really have enemies but my recurring desire for chocolate is kind of like an enemy, and with a melodramatic leap of imagination my inward hesitations about life can be mapped onto the Psalm. Or there was the just-the-highlights mode that kept a few of the more inspiring Psalms in heavy rotation and placed the rest in quarantine. None of those strategies seem quite like reading Scripture as God’s Word.
When I had the opportunity some years ago to teach Life Together in a German course, my students found Bonhoeffer’s angle on all of this quite alien. He begins from the claim that the Psalms are the prayer book of the body of Christ. He means something stronger here than the idea that individual Christians everywhere use the Psalms in their personal prayers. He means that the church together, as Christ’s body, prays the Psalms. It follows from this that today’s Psalm does not have to be about me for it to concern me. Perhaps I was not weeping last night, but someone in the worldwide body of Christ was, and we are called to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Perhaps I am not terrified at the moment, but someone in the worldwide body of Christ is, and “if one member suffers, everyone suffers with it. If a member is honored, all rejoice with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26) Perhaps I am not facing imminent attack by enemies, but someone in the worldwide body of Christ is, and we are commanded, “remember those in prison as though you were in prison with them, and those ill-treated as though you too felt their torment.” (Hebrews 13:3). What if praying the Psalms is not just a chance to find a mirror for my own experience, but to an invitation to join in, to take up the prayers of others?
This account of praying the Psalms pushes back against our inclination to think of prayer as a way of externalizing our individual concerns. This was the shift that my students found jarring, even disturbing. “I also find this idea of praying as the whole community strange,” one of them wrote. “I have not often prayed the same prayer with other people. Maybe we pray for one another, or we have a sentence that we all repeat together, but such a thing as Bonhoeffer describes? That is completely new and I don’t know what to think.2” Bonhoeffer’s account invites a posture subtly but radically different from that evoked by “praying for” others. The Bible does, of course, also invite us to pray for others, but this is not quite the same. Notice the phrasing in those New Testament passages just quoted: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep;” “everyone suffers with it … all rejoice with it;” “Remember those in prison as though you were in prison with them … as though you too felt their torment.” Praying for still allows distance. I can pray for things to go better for someone else while remaining insulated from their need. I can even remain ensconced in a basically selfish haze of well-meaning condescension and unencumbered pity. These passages push for something more, a willingness to pray with others, to identify with them, joining my voice and hope to theirs. This is hard.
It seems to me that praying like this ought to affect how we relate to a lot of things. The body of Christ spans nations, ethnicities, genders, incomes. How might it color my approach to politics if I were engaged in a regular discipline of identifying in prayer with those disadvantaged by policies that might bring me advantage? How might it change my posture as a participant in the world if I learned to identify in prayer with those who do not share my wealth, my ethnicity, my citizenship, my gender, my language? What might it do to my character if I could learn to pray in a way less rooted in the vortex of my own concerns? I don’t think the answer to any of these questions is simple or easy. But I have been wondering specifically how praying with the Psalms might help me to grow as a teacher.
What if, as part of preparing to teach, I were to pray the Psalms with my students. Not in the sense that we pray them in unison or even in one another’s presence, but in the sense that Bonhoeffer evokes, where I pray through the Psalm wondering, as I do so, how its words might express my students’ needs and concerns and not just my own. Take Psalm 6. Might some of my students be fervently hoping for mercy? Might any have been weeping last night? Are any afraid of some of their peers? Are any exhausted? How might I join my prayer to theirs, as if their burden were mine?
I have been experimenting with this lately, within the limitations of a far-from-heroic prayer life. I have, at intervals, been using successive Psalms to focus on praying with my education students quite outside of my contact with them. The Psalm becomes a way of thinking about what they may be facing and joining in with their hopes. I am finding that the experiment creates no additional need to pry into my students’ personal affairs, or to see dramatic change and magical fixing of problems. But it does push me into reflecting on the range of things my students may be experiencing and putting myself in their place. It helps me to pray for their success in a way that is somewhat uncoupled from my own desire for my class to go well. It does not collapse the difference in our roles, but it does reduce our human distance by fostering compassion (which literally means suffering with). It offers me one more way of remembering that teaching is, in the end, not about me.
I have not announced this practice to my students, though I am thinking I may share this blog post with them before the semester is done. Perhaps it may encourage some without trespassing too much on the spirit of Matthew 6. We all need encouragement these days. And the way that we pray can itself be a form of teaching, insofar as it becomes a public act. Christian schools and universities are places where prayer happens, and at least some of that prayer is done visibly. I wonder what our modes of prayer are teaching. I wonder what we are learning from them.
1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 5, trans. James H. Burtness and Daniel W. Bloesch (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996).
2. David I. Smith, On Christian Teaching (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 107.