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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Vocabulary of the Divine

An essential pastoral task is to declare to the congregation that their sins are forgiven. “Our burdens find their ultimate relief only when we hear that Jesus’ death on the cross paid for all our transgressions. Our sickness and sorrow find their ultimate hope only when we hear that Jesus’ perfect life was enough to merit the Father’s eternal, perpetual, irrevocable delight in us” [1]. Yet a pastor can only preach this truth once it has been wrestled through in prayer. “The inner action of prayer takes precedence over the outer action of proclamation” [2].

I find I preach a text better when I have taken time to lectio divina through the passage. I have not done this often. In fact, I have only practiced lectio divina a few times in general. While each time I have practiced it has been nourishing, I am unnerved by the experience of the text reading me rather than the other way around. It is also difficult to work into the schedule of the school year. Perhaps, I ought to devote a summer to practicing lectio divina and getting into the habit.

The discipline takes seriously what Eugene Peterson writes: "The word is as foundational in the work of salvation as it is in the work of creation. Just as everything outside us originates in the word of God, so does everything inside us. We can’t get behind the word of God. There is no human insight, no human desire, no human cry anterior to this word of God. There is no great abstraction, no great truth behind or previous to this word. Everywhere we look, everywhere we probe, everywhere we listen we come upon word-and it is God’s word, not ours" [3].

In lectio divina, God’s Word speaks first, reading the reader, opening the scabs that have not been allowed to heal, and speaking new life. “All speech is answering speech. We were all spoken to before we spoke” [4]. The prayer of lectio divina is a response to the Word of God unleashed in our lives by the Holy Spirit.

Because prayer is answering speech [5], to pray with congregants, whether in private or corporately, pastors must be able to hear the Word God is speaking in all situations and have a robust vocabulary to answer that Word. According to Peterson, that vocabulary can only be acquired in the Psalms [6]. In the Psalms course this semester, we are reading Walter Brueggemann who described the Psalms as a counter-world "that is at least in tension with our other, closely held world and in fact is often also in direct odds with that closely held world. As a result, we yearn for a counter-world that is characterized by trust and assurance, because we know very often that our closely held world is not the best of all possible worlds….we recognize intuitively that the counter-world of the Psalms is a risky, raw-edged world of dispute and contestation, and that is often more than we can take on. The God whom we meet in the Psalms is not the benign object of custodial religion in which we specialize, but is a Character, an Agent, and a Force who operates in free ways that disturb and interrupt" [7]. The Psalms are a gymnasium where what we most desire is fulfilled and what we hold most dear is challenged.

When I think of the Psalms, I feel a bit of disconnect. On the one hand, I have spent a lot of time in my area of interest, the patristic church, and am always moved by the roles the Psalms played in their lives. Yet when I've engaged the Psalms in public worship, I do not feel the same way some of my heroes have. I was involved in a PCA church for a while that often recited a Psalm responsively. As I was interested in Anglicanism in college, an on-campus Evening Prayer gathering recited the Psalms. Now, in the Episcopal Church I attend, we chant the Psalms weekly. I am still getting the hang of how we chant them and think once I feel more comfortable with it I'll have a different experience. But often when I hear the Psalms, I go back to my days as a student in Christian schools. Often, we memorized isolated verses from a Psalm out of context. The Psalms were often used to present an “us vs. them” attitude in the culture wars. Often when I hear the Psalms, I hear them with such misunderstandings.

With that said, one psalm, in particular, has grabbed my heart. In college, while struggling with depression and unsure how to pray through it, I googled for some psalms that might help and came across Psalm 13. I found that the opening verse touched on exactly what I was feeling: "How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?" Yet the short psalm quickly moves to conclude: "I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me." I found the movement of this psalm to be profound and I've come back to it several times since then. During one particularly difficult semester of seminary (for personal reasons, not academic), I was sharing with a classmate during intensives and she opened up a Bible, saying, "As you were speaking, the Holy Spirit brought this psalm to mind." She proceeded to read Psalm 13. Whenever I come across that psalm, I feel like I'm reading my psalm.

[1] Hicks, Zac. The Worship Pastor: A Call to Ministry for Worship Leaders and Teams. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016. p. 127.

[2] Peterson, Eugene H. Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2001, p. 40

[3] Ibid. p. 48.

[4] Ibid. p. 49.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. p. 56.

[7] Brueggemann, Walter. From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms. Edited by Brent A. Strawn. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014. p. 9.

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