Poems and Prayers of the Bible

Theresa F. Latini

This summer our blog focuses on “Poems and Prayers of the Bible:” inspiring insights, honest struggles, soaring praise, and earthy wisdom of some of the most beautiful and masterful pieces of ancient literature. These passages help us to retreat where we are, that is, to rest, to listen to God, others, and nature, and to learn the paths of wisdom.

Poems and prayers slow us down, or at least they should. We cannot rush our way through a poem, passing over it like a 140-character tweet. Poems are meant to be savored. The best poems stop us in our tracks. They surprise us by revealing something beautiful, true, and good about human experience, and in so doing, bequeath to us a nugget a wisdom for life’s journey.

Poems also invite us to listen, to pay attention to life in all its forms. Can you imagine rushing through Mary Oliver’s “When I Am Among the Trees?” To do so would be antithetical to the poem itself.

The same is true of prayer. Though admittedly, I have approached prayer like I’m crossing off one more item from my never-ending to-do list. When my daughter was four-years-old, she was enamored with mermaids. I was in a hurry to get through bedtime prayer. Eleanor stopped me and insisted that we add mermaids to our list of regular petitions. I tried to explain quickly that mermaids aren’t real. Eleanor was adamant, “Mommy, yes they are real. You just don’t believe.” No amount of reasoning could change her mind. Aware of the ticking clock, I acquiesced and prayed that all the mermaids in the world would be healthy and strong. Amen and Good Night.

In retrospect, I realized how that evening I neglected an essential part of prayer . . . listening. For Eleanor knows that we bring to God all that we care about, and she cared about mermaids. Her request was born of genuine faith.

Prayers and poems are wrapped in deep listening, the kind of listening through which we really understand another. Such listening can make us wise, or at least a little less foolish. By bending our ear to God and to one another, we learn kindness, humility, discretion, and generosity.

While we can find poems and prayers laced throughout the scripture, they are concentrated in a few places. Five books of the Old Testament, also knowns as the Hebrew Bible, are highly poetic in form: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs.

Among these, the Psalms are known as the Prayerbook of the Bible, and the others are known as the wisdom books. The Psalms teach us to pray. They give us language when words escape us. Like Jews before and after him, Jesus prayed the Psalms. His last dying words taken from Psalm 22: “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?”

Jews and Christians alike have prayed the Psalms for millennia, yet this practice has languished in many faith communities. Which is another reason to place our attention on poems and prayers of the Bible: to recover a precious practice that has sustained and nourished people for ages.

The collection of 150 psalms begins with a wisdom poem. Like a good poem, Psalm 1 sets before us two compelling images to inspire and guide us. The first is that of two life paths. One path leads to genuine and lasting happiness, the other leads to eventual destruction and devastation. Those who take the first path thrive; they flourish in and through the storms of life. We walk this path every time we place our attention on learning God’s ways, by studying scripture, by listening to wise teachers, by noticing the wonders of God’s creation in all its diversity. We walk this path by seeking to discern God’s will when facing major life decisions. We choose this path when we attune our hearts and minds to God. And, when we meditate on and pray the Psalms together. For these poem-prayers teach us to bring our whole selves to God with vulnerability, honesty, and authenticity.

In contrast, we walk the other path—what the psalmist calls the way of the wicked—when we turn away from or, worse yet, against God and our neighbors. When we ridicule or mock God’s ways and those who seek them. When we listen to folly and attune our hearts and minds to any myriad of things other than God.

While the psalmist labels these as the path of the righteous or the path of the wicked, any one of us can be righteous or wicked at any given moment depending on our choices. There is a profoundly insightful scene in the book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Harry asks his godfather, Sirius Black: “What if after everything that I’ve been through, something’s gone wrong inside me? What if I’m becoming bad?” Sirius responds, “I want you to listen to me very carefully, Harry. You’re not a bad person. You’re a very good person, to whom bad things have happened. Besides, the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”

Sirius sounds like the wise Psalmist: the world isn’t made up righteous and wicked people. We can choose love or we can choose fear. Our choices matter. Over time, our choices, big and small, add up to a life marked more or less by thriving or languishing.

To illuminate this further, Psalm 1 sets before us the image of a tree. If we are rooted and grounded in God’s ways, then we will be like a tree that is nourished daily by the gifts of water and sun. We will flourish. Our lives will nourish others as well. And like a tree, there’s really nothing more for us to do than simply be who are created to be: children of God who find guidance, sustenance, and pleasure in God, in each other, indeed in all of creation.

During a tumultuous time in my life, a wise mentor recommended yoga and I decided to give it a try. Tree pose was my favorite. It’s a balance pose. You stand on one foot, with the other foot pressed into the side of your calf (or thigh if you’re more flexible than me). You raise your hands to the sky or bring them into prayer position at your chest. You soften your gaze and breathe in and out intentionally. Tree pose taught me to relax even when I started to topple. My mind became still, like a tree whose only responsibility is to receive the nourishment given to it by God.

Happy are those who pay attention to the poems and prayers of the Bible, because they will be like a healthy tree. They will grow strong. They will be content to grow wherever they are planted. And they will offer the gifts of shade, fruit, beauty to those with whom they live and work. May that be true for us all this day.

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This blog is a shortened version of the Sunday radio program, Faith Alive, posted on June 6. To listen to the full program, visit Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church.

Theresa F. Latini, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

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