Psalm 127, a meditation (Lectionary, Lent 4)

This week as I settled into prayer I returned to the words of this Psalm. As you gaze and meditate on the words, which words stand out to you?

This week it was the words “unless the Lord…” which seemed to have the most resonance for me. I allowed them to come into sync with my breathing, so that my breath and and the words became a unified prayer.

“Unless the Lord …”

Life often has lessons to teach us about our limitedness. This week has provided many opportunities to teach me about my finiteness. I find these words of the Psalmist comforting, for I also am in need of power beyond my agency, am am in need of provision beyond my own resources, I am need to love beyond my own love.

“Unless the Lord …”

I acknowledge that things are limited also — I don’t need something, I need someone. Specifically, I need One who is greater — the Source of Life — Creator, Sustainer, Liberator and Lover — from whom, to whom and through whom are all things.*

“Unless the Lord …”

Unless you Lord are the one at work in our work,
then our labour is in vain.
Unless you watch over us,
then our plans are vanity.
Yet — if
if you are — if!
I still myself.
You are present and active;
My whole perspective, and my manner of activity must change.
May we trust you in our activity,
and trust you in our rest.
May we learn the unforced rhythms of grace.**
We yield
to You — Source of Life.

From you , to you and through you are all things.

* — Romans 11:36 (NIV)
** — Matthew 11:28-30 (MSG)

A prayer, after Psalm 29 (Lectionary, Epiphany 1)

You who carve canyons,
You who brood over wild waters,
We gaze on your creation in wonder.
This your temple, in which we cry — Glory!
Mighty and majestic; wild and untamed,
Lightening and thunder have nothing on you.
Yet, to what can we compare you?

Give strength to your people today.
To all who fast and pray, to all who sing — Glory!
Give strength. Encourage and inspire.
We need your peace
among us.

Songs of Lament (hold me now)

One of the many gifts of the Hebrew Scriptures are the expressions of lament which are given voice throughout. The Psalms record many of these — with cries of of “how long O Lord?”, “Why Lord?” … “when Lord?”

Note these words from Psalm 6:

“Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?
Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love.
Among the dead no one proclaims your name.
Who praises you from the grave?
 I am worn out from my groaning.
All night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
they fail because of all my foes.”

Psalm 6.2–7

This Song of David, along with many other Psalms, provides us with examples of how the ancients prayed when trouble overwhelmed them. There is a brutal honesty here, creating a space to give voice to the pain and sorrow, and bought into the presence of God. Space for our dis-integrated selves be broken and poured out, laid bare before God.

What are your songs of lament? Do you find the stirrings of your soul in these Psalms of sorrow? Perhaps you hear your laments echoed in contemporary poetry or popular song. Perhaps you have been able to write your own poem loaded with honest, heartfelt emotion. 

Last month as I sat down to pray I became aware of a deep sorrow and tiredness in my soul. I was reminded of a song I’d not heard for many years—as if it was singing within me. “Van Diemens Land” (sung by the Edge of U2) became my prayer of lament to God that day. And dwelling in that place the words and feelings became a prayer, integrating my whole self; and hope emerged amongst the sorrow and tiredness — I was not alone.

Lectio Divina

Lectio Divina is an ancient way of praying scripture. This practice has been used throughout church history and continues to be a nourishing discipline for Christians from all traditions.

The Latin/Benedictine name, Lectio Divina, may sound unusual to us now — it essentially means: “sacred reading”. This engaging with scripture is reflective and done in the presence of God, with an openness to receiving what the Spirit has to say to us today.

So often we can get into the habit of monopolising the conversation we are having with God. We rush into prayer with words of thanks, praise or requests. Lectio reminds us: God always has the first word. So, we come first to listen.

We are all used to reading scripture — to learn, to study, to memorise, and to teach. With Lectio — we read not to be informed — rather to be transformed.

There is of course time to study, and time to grasp nuances of context, and form and language. However, lectio is a different sort of spiritual discipline — it is prayerful and mediative. “Oh how I love your law, I meditate on it all day long”, writes the Psalmist; and: “I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways.” In lectio we seek to do the same.

For this reason we tend not to choose long passages of scripture, rather we engage with just a a few verses at a time. And we listen through repeated reading of those verses. The intention is to go deep not wide. We are ‘sipping on scripture’ as one writer put it — savouring the flavour — like a fine wine.

Practicing this prayer 

This way of prayer has 4 distinct stages:
Read / Reflect / Respond / Rest.

Read: First, read the text listen to the text — listen as if hearing it fresh, hearing the sounds.

Reflect: Read a the test second time and allow yourself to focus on the one word or phrase which draws your attention today. Give time in silence to reflect & meditate  that word or phrase — ponderer it… mull it over.

Respond: Read the passage a third time — and consider how you would like to respond to God in silent prayer.

Finally Rest. This is a key feature of lectio and of contemplative prayer in general. Resist the urge to race through on to the next thing. Give yourself time to simply ‘be’ — to treasure  what you have been given with God.

As you practice this in everyday life you may want to work through a whole chapter over a series of days. Or, you may simply return to verses which have been bought to your attention (e.g. at church, or something you’ve read, or a fleeting memory) — we can take these nudges as invitations to go deeper and to dwell on what God has to say to us.

 Why not try the prayer today? Perhaps start by using the much loved Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd,
I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down
in green pastures,
he leads me beside
quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me
along the right paths
for his name’s sake.

Examen (a variation with postures)

I’m grateful to the author Ian Adams for bringing this version of the Ignatian Daily Examen to my attention, in his book ‘Running Over Rocks’. This practice fits particularly well at threshold moments, such as the end of a day. The five stages correlate to fives gesture, incorporating our whole self into the prayer.

  1. Open your hands
    Allow yourself to be open and attentive to the presence of God.  Slow your breathing and settle yourself, becoming still and centred. 
  2. Hold your hands to your heart
    Ask the Spirit to help you remember the day with thanks. Let events from the day play back to you and allow one moment particularly be bought to your attention. Remember and relive this moment, and treasure it with God.
  3. Hands held to stomach
    Let the emotions that you have experienced today play back to you. Allow the Spirit to highlight one particular strong emotions you experienced to come to your attention. As you recall the moment remind yourself that the Spirit was present with you in it. Revisit the emotion in the presence of God.
  4. Hands to lips
    Let one element or moment from the day become a prayer expressed to God.. 
  5. Open your hands
    As a gesture of letting go and taking on a posture of relieving. Gracefully revive the coming night and day as a gift from God.

Centering Down: Palms Up, Palms Down

Author and teacher Richard Foster describes a prayer practice sometimes known as ‘Palms up, palms down’, it has also been known by the The Quakers as Centering Down.
This version of the prayer uses gestures in order for us to “embody the prayer”:

  • First: identifying and releasing our burdens (palms down)
  • Second: receiving God‘s grace (palms up)

Practicing the prayer

Begin by becoming still — sit comfortably, with your feet flat on the ground, and your hands resting comfortably on your lap. 

Gently notice your breathing as you become still.

Turn your palms down, and allow yourself to notice what you are carrying today: a concern, an anxiety, or something that weighs on your heart and mind. 

As you continue to hold your palms down, let it be a symbolic indication of your desire to turn over this concern to God. Inwardly pray and release your concern.

When you feel ready to move on, turn your palms up as a symbol of your desire to receive. Articulate that (with or without words) to the One who loves to give generously.

Continue to sit with you palms up and listen for what God’s wants to give freely to you.

This process can be repeated as you notice other concerns. As you come to the end of this time, relax your posture and give thanks — treasure this time with God.

Breath Prayer

Breath prayer, is a wonderfully simple form of prayer. It is sometimes known as a ‘prayer of the heart’. For me it its a physical prayer — a prayer of the body — with an emphasis more on posture and inner orientation . In this prayer we receive each breath as a gift — a divine grace.

Engaging in this prayer

  • Become comfortable, adjust your posture so you seated in a manner that allows you to be alert and steady.
  • Notice you breathing… try taking a few deep slow breaths. Then let your breaths settle.
  • Become aware and attentive to the Presence of the Spirit.
  • Inhale the breath of life gratefully. Let it be an expression of your deepest desire for the life of the Spirit.
  • Exhale as you release all that holds you back from engaging in the life of God.
  • Allow yourself to settle into a gentle rhythm of inhaling and exhaling.
  • Breathing in deeply… and breathing out slowly.
  • Let each breath be an expression of your intention before God
  • Be open to receiving God’s grace.

Some will combine this practice with ‘the Jesus Prayer’ — allowing their breath to come into sync with the words, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”, or simply the word “Jesus”. Other short phrases could also be used — e.g. breathing in with, “O Holy One”, and breathing out with, “may I find rest in you”; or: “Breath of Life — breath life in me”.

Who we are to become

Rowan Williams’ Silence and Honey Cakes is a joy to read and a real source of wisdom. He encourages to engage in the “patient, long-term discovery of what grace will do” to us. It is a work that “requires the kind of vulnerability to each other that can only come with the building up of trust over time, the kind of silence that brings our fantasy identities to judgement…” It is he says, “life and death with neighbour once more”

“We don’t know what we shall be, what face God will show to us in the mirror he holds unto us on the last day, but we can continue to question our own (and other people’s) strange preference for the heavy burden of self justification, or self creation, and weep for our reluctance to become persons and to be transfigured by the personal communion opened for us by Jesus.” R. Williams

Abba, Father
I don’t know who I am
Nor who I will be
But you see me truly
And your desire is for me
So may I let go
and allow myself
to be embraced
by you, Abba,
my beloved.