1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
–New Revised Standard Version translation of Psalm 23
God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows;
you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word, you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction.
Even when the way goes through Death Valley,
I’m not afraid when you walk by my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure.
You serve me a six-course dinner
right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
my cup brims with blessing.
Your beauty and love chase after me
every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of GOD
for the rest of my life.
–Eugene Peterson’s translation of Psalm 23, The Message
The last three weeks of Gospel passages and the events wracking the world in Asia and the Middle East have caused me to think hard about prayer and prayer life as important element of my response to the chaos in my life, as part of the work of a Christian in the world. This Sunday’s reading of the 23rd Psalm brought prayer home. The psalm is so familiar that I sometimes can’t really hear it–but its incredible familiarity also mean that it is a resource for prayer, which brings the rest and restoration that the psalm invokes and evokes.
This note to you takes just the first line of the psalm as a jumping off place to talk about my own experiments, challenges, and places of solace and growth in prayer. One book I return to over and over again is Frank T. Griswold’s Praying Our Days. It is a very small book by Morehouse Publishing, and has simple advice and beautiful short prayers that are easily adopted.
Framing my day: Psalm 23, verse 1a The Lord is my shepherd
Through the centuries, millions of Christians have begun the morning with the words of the Invitatory that begin Morning Prayer, words that remind us who we are and whose we are. These words set me on a “right path” for the day: Lord, open my lips+, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
Another short beginning to the day that summarizes Christian identity is a prayer of Saint Patrick:
+I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity+;
Through belief+ in the threeness,
Through confession+ of the oneness of the creator of Creation.
When I say Saint Patrick’s prayer I make the sign of the cross across my body at the first line, on my head at the word “belief,” and on my mouth at the word “confession.”
Daily Office—Morning Prayer, Prayer at Noon, Evening Prayer, and Compline—are the traditional structure of prayer in an Anglican Day. They are most easily followed if you live in a seminary or monastery! At my ordination I was charged to pray Morning and Evening Prayer daily, praying for the congregation of Saint Andrew’s and for the world.
I read or say Morning Prayer most mornings, ideally at a window that has morning light, using my BCP prayer book and Bible. When I have less energy, when I’m travelling, when somehow like a stray sheep I have “nibbled myself lost” with morning meetings and missed deadlines I turn to Morning Prayer on dailyoffice.wordpress.com/ which goes faster and takes less effort. I like dailyoffice.org because it has a real sense of community and integrates the readings with short mention of the news of the day. If I’ve stayed on the right path that morning and the nibbling of my time hasn’t been too severe, I follow Morning Prayer with quiet sitting, simply following my breath and repeating the word “amen”—“may it be so.” I use the Contemplative Outreach Centering Prayer app to count my minutes and frame the moments of meditation—you can find it at https://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/centering-prayer-method/.
My intentions are freshest and most often fulfilled in the early morning and time-nibbling begins by, oh, 9.00 am. I have started to set an alarm for 12.00 pm and 4.00 pm, hoping that I will use those moments to pray the Daily Office at midday before lunch, and at 4.00 to begin to close down the day. Dailyoffice.org is a useful resource here, but I also pray in the Saint Andrew’s sanctuary, especially on Tuesdays when we have Bible study at 4.30. Saying Noonday Prayer and Evening Prayer daily is most definitely aspirational. I am always amazed at how easy they are to manage when I do take them on—and how often I buck against changing the course of the day with these short and beautiful prayers. I’m with Saint Paul on this experience—see Romans 7:15.
At the end of the day, I find that I often resist formal prayer. Following the advice, “Pray as you can, don’t pray as you can’t,” when I am settling into bed I bring to mind Ten Gratitudes—ten moments of the day that were a blessing. I should really call them “ten gratitudes” without capital letters because they are usually very small moments of the day. Despite their smallness, I find that these moments have been those that are deeply cherished.
I mentioned in the sermon today a beautiful meditation on the holy name of God—YHWH—and the very breath of life. If you would like to watch it, you will find it here, although sometimes the site is blocked. I can find it by searching “014 BREATHE Rob Bell.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-EFLRDNAx-Y
Resetting my Mind and Heart: Psalm 23, verse 1b I shall not want
A different kind of prayer is a reflection on your life—a pause in the movement of the day to think about where you are. I love this short exercise by David Lose that reflects on what is sufficient.
At some point during the coming week on a sheet of paper:
–write down in one column ten things for which you are most grateful in your life
–write down in another column the ten things you most want right now
Consider this question:
Which would have a greater impact,
losing all the things for which you are grateful
gaining all the things you currently want?
There is no right answer here; some of us are in very difficult times, feeling loss deeply and yearning intensely. Others will find that they are surprised at the blessings that suffuse their lives, especially those that had not been noticed.
If you feel moved, email or send me your thoughts on this exercise. And I would love to hear your own practices, experiments, and advice on prayer.
Peace to you,