Read Genesis 1:1-5.
Steve Padilla draws sunspots. Daily, for nearly forty years, he has climbed to the solar telescope perched atop Mount Wilson near Los Angeles, California, to sketch images of the sun and its ever-changing surface. Padilla has added to the over 28,000 images that date back to 1917. Once a week, he goes down the mountain for groceries, dinner with friends, and church. Otherwise, he sits on the mountain and draws sunspots. Using colored pencils and 10-by-20-inch sheets of paper, he sketches a new image every day. Meteorologists use the sketches to predict solar flares. … read
Every day, early in the morning and sometimes in the afternoon or evening, I take 20 minutes just to be in God’s presence. During these two periods of the day I try to be completely open to God, who is my source, lover, and constant companion. Twenty minutes twice a day is not a lot of time. But it is enough to turn my life around.
As a chaplain at a hospital, I sit with people from all walks of life through the extreme and the mundane, the joyous and the sorrowful. When asked to teach a spiritual practice to our patients, I searched for a biblically based practice that could speak to a wide variety of people. It was one of my older patients who unknowingly helped me. Telling me how he loved the Psalms, he said, “I tried to take my brother’s wife. I’ve also been betrayed. All the while I was messing up and scared, I still loved God. All the things I’ve shouted out to God, King David shouted out too. It’s different, but it’s the same – as if I were reading my own prayers.”
From this encounter came the inspiration to write psalms as a way to pray. I have begun writing psalms as prayers in my own journal. In individual pastoral counseling, I often encourage patients to write a psalm about whatever matter we have discussed. After we conclude, I read the psalm aloud as a spoken prayer, a way to bless our shared spiritual endeavor and lift our work to God.
The topics of the Psalms reflect our timeless spiritual need for meaning and purpose. We need to know God is near in good times and bad, in praise and in lamentation, when we’re getting things right or making a mess. The Psalms encourage us to come before God exactly as we are right now.
Praying for Light in the Darkness
When I took up the practice myself, I began to see that writing psalms from my life gave me a new perspective. I sometimes get caught up in negative thinking, ruminating over hurts or mistakes. But this is almost impossible to do when writing a psalm. Even when the psalmist is writing about a deeply negative subject matter, such as betrayal in Psalm 55 or deep personal repentance of sin as in Psalm 51, the psalmist does not simply state the grim facts but also envisions a future in which God has restored and renewed life with grace and abundant love.
Being able to write one’s darkest doubts or scariest fears and then imagining God providing a way out of them is one of the gifts that writing psalms can offer.
Praying Forth Trust
Writing psalms of trust and confidence is a powerful way to deepen our faith. We can envision new sways to put our faith in God despite boredom, confusion, or tragedy. Notice in the 23rd Psalm that the psalmist devotes three lines to images of God’s grace and protection before the single line stating, “I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” This single image of difficulty is potent. Yet the images of trust and deliverance, hope and security are just as potent.
In six different images, we see the outrageous ways the Lord acts as the Divine Shepherd, sheltering us. The psalmist concludes with the faith that no matter where this life leads, God’s goodness and mercy follow him; God is his home.
Writing Psalms as a Form of Prayer
Perhaps you have already seen ways in which you might use the psalms to spark your own “shouting out” to God. If not, I hope you find some of these writing prompts useful. Use the Psalms as inspiration to write your own psalms, your own prayers. Once you get the idea of what your heart longs to give to God in word, go with it. Remember, each psalm reminds us that we can come before God as we are because God is for us, bearing with us, and loving us.
Try Your Hand at Writing a Psalm
1. Reflect on a time of difficulty and find an image of what it looked like (or would look like) for you to come through that time. Write a psalm in which you state three ways you lived through this difficulty for every one way you describe the difficulty.
For example: O Lord, the wind swept away all that we had saved and there was nothing.
Out of an empty kitchen you showed me there was
food for us; you put back together our broken hearts.
Where our tears fell, you planted joys to grow as numerous as the stars.
2. Read Psalm 100. Think about what it means for God’s love to be what defines you: your life’s meaning and purpose is to be God’s beloved. Nothing else exceeds this. Write a psalm about entering God’s presence and fully experiencing your own soul as the beloved of God.
3. Read Psalm 65. Reflect on the smallness of human life amidst the grand scale of the earth, stars, and cosmos. Write a psalm affirming your life’s meaning and purpose as a creative child of God inhabiting this great, wide world.
4. Read Psalm 28 and then put it away. Reflect on a need you experience. Begin your psalm with three descriptions of the Lord delivering you from this need. Describe your need only once, as vividly as possible. Conclude your psalm with expressions of thanksgiving that your need has been met.Jane Herring, a former teacher, holds a Master of Divinity from Vanderbilt University Divinity School. She now serves as a hospice chaplain and is a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
This article was originally published as a “Prayer Workshop” in The Upper Room daily devotional guide, September–October 2013. © 2013 by The Upper Room. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Suggested Additional Reading
Elizabeth J. Canham, Finding Your Voice in the Psalms: An Invitation to Honest Prayer