Earlier this year I built a few garden boxes to use in our front and side yards. They were simple little projects, but they gave me something constructive to do for a few hours and a sense of satisfaction when I was ready to load them up with dirt. (I’ll leave the question of the success of the garden to another post, tentatively titled “The Failure of Fruitfulness and the Depths of Disappointment.”)
Building these boxes was a very different experience than the one I had a few years ago when I built another one. I didn’t have any kind of a workbench at the time and, as I recall it, my drill wasn’t working. Having someone sit on one 2-by-6 while you try to hand screw it to another one, which you’re holding with your free hand, is a humiliating experience. You find yourself complaining about incipient blisters and standing up to stretch between turns of the screw to mask the fact that your real fear is that your muscles are too weak to manage this job.
This year was different. I had bought one of those handy little Black & Decker Workmates and had picked up a new drill during a Covid-lockdown online shopping trip. Building the boxes was a breeze. I had the tools and spared myself some blisters.
We need tools. For almost every part of life, tools can smooth the path we’re planning to take.
Tools can be tricky, too. Using something as a tool means you think about it primarily for what it can do for you (unless you’re a Tim “the Tool Man” Taylor type, in which case you might find yourself staring at the tool for its own sake, forgetting that it does have a purpose). Some folks treat other people as if they are tools, seeing them as a means to get what they want. This is known as using people, and is not a recommended relational strategy.
To some Christians, the Bible is a tool—a tool for evangelism, perhaps, or (less charitably) a tool for putting other people in their place. In one sense the Bible is God’s tool—he speaks to us through the words of Scripture rather than through an audible voice.
I’m not sure what I think about considering the Bible to be a tool. It seems to forget the fact that for Christians we believe we hear God’s voice speaking to us when we read it, and I’d want to be cautious about seeing a conversation with God as a means to an end. But it can be (and has been) argued that the Bible contains tools within its pages. I think this is right. There are tools in the Bible. The particular tools I have in mind are the Psalms, which have been called by Eugene Peterson “tools for prayer,” especially in his book Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer. What does Peterson mean by saying that the Psalms are “tools for prayer”?
Much of the rest of the Bible comes to us as an authoritative word from God. Sometimes it’s the prophet who says, “Thus says the LORD.” Sometimes it’s a New Testament apostle writing a letter of counsel, with the assumption that these are God-directed words. Even in the story parts of the Bible, we often hear words (whether from Moses in the Old Testament or Jesus in the Gospels) that come to us more or less directly from heaven with the authority of God behind them.
The Psalms are a bit different. Almost alone in the Bible, they give us an extended collection of human words to God. The Psalms sometimes reflect about God in the third person, as a speaker rallies the people to remember God’s deeds, for example. But often the Psalms are words that are addressed to God: they are prayers.
Peterson introduced me to an old practice, one that has been practiced by Christians for close to our whole two thousand years of history. That practice is to systematically go through the Psalms—in order, just as they come, with all their randomness—day after day, week after week, months after month, and “pray” them. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer organizes the Psalms on a thirty day schedule, split up between Morning and Evening Prayer. Saint Benedict came up with a scheme in his rule for praying the Psalms through every week (yes, all of them–every week!). Some present-day monastic orders can vary between two-week and four-week cycles of Psalms-praying.
As an evangelical, all of this was news to me. I was used to reading the Bible for information, or perhaps for comfort and encouragement, and my prayers were something separate from that reading. But over the years, even though I haven’t always stuck with a strict discipline (herein, friends, lies one difference between me and the monks!), the Psalms have become a basic part of my praying. Sometimes this practice doesn’t feel like prayer, at least not if we are thinking of prayer only as the presentation of a list of requests or a visit with a friend at the end of the day. But I’ve learned a lot about prayer by praying the Psalms. They have been tools for speaking to God in ways in which I wouldn’t have otherwise spoken.
I invite you to the practice of using the Psalms as a special part of the Bible. Start to use the Psalms as tools for prayer (one a day, a few a day, whatever), and see if you don’t find yourself becoming thankful for the gift God has given us of human words addressing him. We believe the promise that the Holy Spirit prays for us when we don’t have the words for what we’re feeling (Romans 8:26). How hard is it to imagine that the same Spirit (whose work is behind all of the Scriptures) would have given us written words to help us pray when we don’t have the words for ourselves, or when our words have gotten into a rut, as they often do?
Over the next few posts, I’ll share some reflections on specific Psalms as tools for prayer.