“It’s Poetry, Stupid!”

How a book on the psalms has helped expand my prayer.

“It’s Poetry, Stupid!”

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I first picked up a guitar nearly thirty years ago, when I was seventeen and just coming to know Jesus in a personal way. From the outset, I wanted to write and play Christian songs.

Since then, I have played my guitar and sung to the Lord in all sorts of places—churches, prayer meetings, classrooms, coffee houses, and even market squares, and Metro stations. Many of my “mountaintop moments” have taken place as I worshipped God in song, and writing songs about the Lord is one of my greatest pleasures. I love using his gift of creativity to present his truth. I love, too, the work of honing music and lyrics till they express just what is on my heart. 

For all the creativity God has given me, though, I have felt somewhat stilted when addressing myself to him directly. I’ve had this feeling that for my prayer to be genuine, it should be somewhat plain. With good reason, I think, I wince at songs and prayers that seem too flowery or “touchy-feely.” But at the same time, I’ve asked myself, “Shouldn’t there be a place for musical and poetic creativity in worship and private prayer?” Or would God just say, “For goodness sake, speak plainly, man!”

It’s with these questions about the role of creativity in prayer that I began using Jeanne Kun’s new Bible discussion guide, The Psalms: Gateway to Prayer. Going through it, I have come to see that my fellow songwriters, the psalmists, enjoyed great freedom in how they expressed themselves to the Lord.

Helps and Hindrances. To be honest, I have had something of a love-struggle relationship with the psalms. On the one hand, these prayers have played an important role in my work of writing Christian music. A number of my best songs are near word-for-word renditions of psalms. I’ve always found them tremendously satisfying to write, like collaborating with an ancient lyricist! 

I have loved the psalms, too, because they provide powerful words that have become part of my personal prayer over the years: “Shout with joy to God all the earth!” “Why are you so sad, my soul? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him.” “Teach me your ways, lead me in your paths.” “My soul thirsts for you.” “I, by your great mercy, will come into your house.” As Jeanne Kun says in her introduction, the psalms “teach us how to pray, for they give us a rich vocabulary.”

On the other hand, I have found the psalms frustrating and even irritating. So many of them seem meandering and stream-of-consciousness. Why can’t they keep to one point? Why do they repeat things multiple times in only slightly different ways? And what about those psalms that speak a language I can’t relate to—about crushing enemies, hating evildoers, and having led a “blameless” life?

Experiencing this tension as I do, I was glad to discover that this Bible study didn’t sidestep my questions. Certainly, the book helped me grow in my love for the psalms in general. But it also gave me tools and information for tackling the specific psalms and styles that I have struggled with.

“Talk to Me! Here’s How.” Given my questions about creativity and its place in prayer and worship, I especially relished the section titled “The Poetic Artistry of the Hebrew Psalms.” Learning about the literary styles and techniques used by these ancient authors—who were themselves poets and musicians—opened my eyes to appreciate the psalms as poetry. It has been something of a breakthrough to reread familiar psalms as pieces of creative writing. The repetition I struggled with in the past? Now I know: “It’s poetry, stupid!”—part of the artistry I wasn’t able to see before.

This book has also helped me see the psalms as an answer to the question, “If I want to deepen my relationship with God, how should I speak with him?” With all their different moods and modes, the psalms are like an invitation from God. It’s as if he’s telling us, “I want us to have a real relationship. So come on! Here’s how you can talk to me.” And so, these prayers are real:

They are emotional and raw. The psalms express heights of joy, depths of despair, and everything in between. Many of them read more like spontaneous outpourings of the heart than highly polished works of literature. This tells me that I can speak to God from my heart as well, expressing all that I feel without worrying about using just the right words!

They are intimate. There’s nothing distant or cold about the psalms. They are not formal recitations to a distant deity, but deeply personal words between a people and their God. Through them, God is inviting me to turn to him in the same way—to be intimate with him, to draw near and know his friendship.

They are honest, yet proclaim the truth. The psalmists don’t fake anything; they say it like it is. They sometimes complain and at times even wallow. They can even be melodramatic—“I drench my bed with tears!” Likewise, God asks me to be genuine and not to fake anything when I address him.

But the psalmists proclaim the truth about God, along with how they feel. “You are a shield around me.” “I will not fear the tens of thousands drawn up against me on every side.” Did they always feel as confident as they sound? I don’t think so. Yet they knew the truth, took their stand on it, and declared it in their prayer. I’m called to do the same, however I may feel.

Ancient yet Alive. Perhaps the test of a good book is whether its message continues to affect you after you’ve finished reading it. The Psalms: Gateway to Prayer has left its impact.

Since going through it, I find myself turning to God in ways that are more expressive and free. I am also reintroducing myself to the psalms one by one—reading and rereading them, taking notes, writing them in my own words, basing new songs on them, and learning anew how to pray with them. These ancient but living prayers are expanding the vocabulary and creativity of my prayer life.

Paul Harvey lives in Urbana, Maryland, with his wife, two children, and a few guitars.

The Psalms: Gateway to Prayer, by Jeanne Kun (softcover, 128 pp.), is available from The Word Among Us.

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